How SA franchises fared in abridged season of Super Rugby

Makazole Mapimpi has been brilliant for the Sharks. Picture: Matt King / Getty Images
Makazole Mapimpi has been brilliant for the Sharks. Picture: Matt King / Getty Images

Before the Covid-19 coronavirus stopped all sport around the world, the four South African franchises campaigning in the Super Rugby competition were split into two camps: The pace-setters and the stragglers – the Sharks and the Stormers belonging to the former camp, and the Bulls and the Lions to the latter.

Former Southern Kings assistant coach and former Blitzbok Vuyo Zangqa, as well as former Springbok centre Gcobani Bobo, give their views on why things panned out the way they did.

The pace-setters

Zangqa on the Sharks

Why are they doing so well?

I’ve noticed that they have used the talent in the back four – Lukhanyo Am, Makazole Mapimpi, Sbu Nkosi and Madosh Tambwe or Aphelele Fassi – to the best of their abilities. If you noticed how they scored their tries, it was through transitional play.

That’s what [assistant coach] Dave Williams is big on. He sets up structures to make sure that the team understands what it means to play from unstructured rugby.

It also helps that the loose trio workhorses of Tyler Paul, Sikhumbuzo Notshe and James Venter has been working hard. They probably get more touches than any other loose trio in the competition.

Who are the key drivers of this game plan?

It relies massively on Am, Fassi, the wingers and Curwin Bosch because they are the game breakers.

A lot of the time, Bosch sits back because they want him to attack from the back, so you’ve got Fassi attacking and Bosch, who’s got a step, also coming at you. They like to keep Bosch and Fassi back with one of the wingers.

How do they lure the opposition into this broken play type of game?

How you get broken play sometimes is by ripping the ball in defence. You’ll remember that some of their tries come from them ripping the ball in the tackle, so they go for a dominant hit with a rip, which promotes broken play.

Pieter-Steph du Toit got injured early in the season. Picture: Shaun Roy / BackpagePix

The other way of doing that is by kicking long because, as the opponent, you think you’ve got time to kick back, but once they get the ball, your defence is unstructured. So they know what they want to do, but you don’t.

Sharks forwards aren’t seen as particularly scary, how have they covered up their supposed weakness?

If you compare their tight five – Ox Nché, Kerron van Vuuren, Thomas du Toit, Ruben van Heerden and Hyron Andrews – to the Stormers’, it’s chalk and cheese; they shouldn’t be dominating teams.

Any team playing the Sharks should look to dominate them up front because, once they do that, the pack has nothing to give to the backs.

But the forwards of the Sharks are punching way above their weight because nobody’s been able to dominate them. This is despite the fact that they’re fourteenth on the competition’s scrum stats and fifteenth on the line-outs.

Bobo on the Stormers

What do you attribute their solid start to?

Their start was about all the influence they had in their squad at the beginning of the competition. They started with players of quality, who had gone and won the World Cup, and that flows through to the rest of the team.

Why have they gone off the boil?

They wanted to make sure that they got a good start so that, when they had to travel, their senior players could take a bit of a break. A good start is important in Super Rugby so that you don’t have to chase your tail.

But the injuries to Siya Kolisi, Bongi Mbonambi, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Herschel Jantjies and Steven Kitshoff haven’t helped, because those players were who they’d bargained on.

Much has been made of how disjointed their attack has been, why has it stuttered?

Although they’ve been winning, I felt the Stormers didn’t really express themselves.

It’s something the Stormers haven’t really done in the past few years.

During the Allister Coetzee era, defence and the kicking game were paramount, and the most important thing was to dominate teams territorially and make sure that their set pieces finished them off.

What’s happened is that they neglected upskilling their pack of forwards to make good decisions. They sort of became predictable in relying on their power game to create space for their outside backs.

Most people have blamed the back line for the Stormers’ attacking woes, are you saying it’s actually the forwards’ fault?

For me, it’s quite easy for another side to shut you down if you’ve only got two options in attack. If your attack is based only on your back line play, you’re going to be in trouble because teams are dynamic.

The Sharks are scoring from turnover ball, but who’s turning over the ball and making those passes? It’s guys like Nché and Sikhumbuzo Notshe ... Their forward pack is out among the backs, making sure they can add value and be a threat as ball-carriers and decision-makers.

That’s how a team becomes a dynamic side. But if you base your attack on your fly half, it becomes difficult on that player.

The stragglers

Bobo on the Lions

Why couldn’t they buy a win in the early season?

We can all talk about how many players they’ve lost, but what the Lions really is cohesion, especially in defence. The bigger thing is that the Lions have moved away from their traditional strengths.

The scrum has gone backwards, their line-out ... couldn’t get a driving maul try if they wanted to. It’s become difficult for them because they’ve lost the fundamentals they had as a team.

The one thing they really relied on was the way in which they kept many phases in attack, which hasn’t materialised because they’re a bit directionless when it comes to attack.

They haven’t been able to use their conditioning levels, which have been a strength for years, to maintain the ball so that they play quicker.

The defence issue has been widely mentioned, what’s wrong with it?

They’ve leaked so many tries.

There was a time when they leaked 21 tries in three games on tour, which shows you the lack of cohesion.

Malcolm Marx has carried the Lions. Picture: ChrisKotze / BackpagePix

You can’t fault the players for effort, but, at the same time, they never had stopping power and missed a lot of one-on-one tackles, which means they can’t dominate the gain line and they can’t slow the opposition team’s ball down so they can reorganise their defensive line.

You’ve touched on their losing experienced players, surely that’s contributed to their situation?

It has a lot to do with that.

If you look at the team profile, how many ball carriers do they have to get them over the gain line?

If you look at their locks, who’s their ball carrier? So when you look at [hooker] Malcolm Marx as a ball carrier, Franco Mostert’s relentless work, Cyle Brink and Jaco Kriel’s ball-carrying ability, they miss that.

The coaching staff has come in for a lot of criticism, do you subscribe to that?

For me, it comes down to a question that not too many people can answer: Does it take a coach to make the players or do the players make the coach?

Sometimes you find that coaches inherit a good side and the only thing they have to do is make sure the systems are adhered to. Sometimes a coach inherits a team that they have to work on and those players become great players in the end.

There’s a bit of both with the Lions at the moment – inexperienced coaching and inexperienced players.

They are in a Catch-22 situation and they don’t seem to know where to go. I think finding their identity and what suits the profile of the players they have, instead of relying on past performances, will be the quickest way to get to their best programme.

Zangqa on the Bulls

Why did they start the competition so badly?

I’m going to go back to the opening game of the season [against the Sharks] – look at the fact that [Bulls coach] Pote [Human] went conservatively with a 1998 Currie Cup way of play by playing a kicker [Morne Steyn] at fly half.

Steyn hasn’t played Super Rugby in a long time, and once you move from Super Rugby and go to France, you come back a different player than you were.

There’s a massive kicking game in France and, as a 10, you’re only a link or you sit in your pocket to kick. Super Rugby is the other way around – we like to test teams in different ways.

For me, Manie Libbok should have started, but Human went with the tried and tested instead of saying: ‘Let me give the youngster a chance and then come back to Steyn if things don’t go well.’

That’s exactly what he did later in the season, and now the Bulls are starting to get exciting.

But Steyn has won pretty much all there is to win with the Bulls, how can the players not respect him?

But look at the age of the players I’m talking about. They’re too young to relate to that.

Let’s take it further: the Bulls last won the Super Rugby tournament in 2010 – Libbok and Warrick Gelant were probably still in primary school, Burger Odendaal was probably in Grade 10.

Morne Steyn struggled a bit after joining the Bulls Picture: Ashley Vlotman / Gallo Images

They probably don’t relate to that kind of player. They’re all about offloads, stepping and running into space.

Steyn apart, how much of an impact did losing the spine they had last year have on the Bulls?

It did impact the performances. If you look at the locks they’ve lost in RG Snyman and Lood de Jager, those are World Cup-winning locks.

Josh Strauss at eight is doing well, but he’s not Duane Vermeulen. Trevor Nyakane being made captain while Odendaal is injured has hampered his game because it’s his first time leading at this level ... Human doesn’t have a set scrum half between Embrose Papier and Ivan van Zyl, while Gelant is off form.

So the team is quite unsettled.

How would you make the Bulls more consistent?

Human has brilliant backs, and if he were to play the same game as the Sharks, the Bulls would be more dangerous because he’s got Rosko Specman, Cornal Hendricks and Gelant in his back three.

If your forwards are not doing the job, you might as well start thinking differently. The only thing they should be looking at is what players they have and what DNA to play them in.


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