Cape Town – Cherish those already fading memories of the last South African title success in Super Rugby 2010 ... there may not be more to savour for a good while.
That was when, in the last tournament of the pre-conference era, the Bulls earned their third trophy (then as the Super 14) by beating domestic rivals the Stormers in the showpiece at Orlando Stadium.
This may sound like an overly pessimistic prediction, but I find it desperately hard to envisage a further South African overall triumph for at least as long on the road ahead as the five-year gap since that last one.
Already bookies, who don’t get everything right but also tend not to get too much wrong – it’s why they exist, really – are lukewarm at best about a South African winner in the further-expanded 2016 competition with its cumbersome, complex format.
A couple of the betting sites I visited this week suggest at least four New Zealand sides and two Australian outfits as likelier winners of this year’s final before they are even prepared to entertain the idea of a South African team – the Sharks and Stormers seem to top the domestic pile for modest approval – going all the way to glory.
It doesn’t take the sharpest tool in the shed to deduce that the ongoing elongation trend in the competition, which has turned it into a “marathon” stretching deeper and deeper into the southern winter (ah, remember the intense, strength-versus-strength appeal of Super 12 in lovely late summer and autumn?) works correspondingly less and less in favour of SA franchises.
That is because squad depth becomes a device of heightened importance now, and this country has already done itself no favours by dispersing what remains of its proven talent in the competition among a record six local franchises.
Seriously aggravating the situation, almost needless to say, is the deflating exodus of top-notch players to Britain, Ireland and France and the highly risky decision by others at times to sacrifice an off-season in the sunshine and instead enter Super Rugby straight off a Japanese sojourn and thus much more vulnerable to wear and tear – or worse -- as the months drag on.
South Africa’s currency weakness is the biggest bogey, of course, and I sometimes think local players must additionally look at the turbulence in the corridors of power – with controversy or instability stalking both the SARU CEO and president, and lingering dilly-dallying over a Springbok coach appointment – and say to themselves: “I’m outta here”.
Those of Bok quality forsaking our shores can also do fairly confident in the knowledge that, unlike in resistant New Zealand, for instance, their Test prospects will not necessarily be harmed by quitting the Super Rugby environment, such is the arsenal of valuable national-team talent now based abroad rather than in the land of their births.
Broadly speaking, I’d suggest the Sharks are the franchise best bucking the “depth problem” trend this year, and for that reason may be the best SA hope -- though they’ve never managed it before -- of title success.
Yet even there, their chances may well have diminished by around 10 percent by the pre-season mishap, on an otherwise pleasing mini-French tour, to captain and vital strategic factor at flyhalf Pat Lambie.
On the brighter side, at least he returns during the 2016 competition, whereas the Bulls have suffered a rather more severe setback – Brendan Venter has described it as a “disaster” -- with Handre Pollard’s all-year sidelining.
With men like Fourie du Preez, Francois Hougaard, Ruan Pienaar, Johan Goosen, Morne and Frans Steyn and Jean de Villiers well out of the Super Rugby picture and an X-factor youngster like Damian de Allende currently injured, I reckon South African teams are broadly going to suffer this year in the critical backline “brains” berths of Nos 9, 10 and 12 in Super Rugby, where rookies will be asked to step up in many cases.
It is also dispiriting to realise that more and more SA players not yet at their primes (rather than the former instance of slightly “past it” customers doing so) will bid farewell to Super Rugby after a mere handful of precious seasons.
Someone like Steven Kitshoff (24), has already left, as has the 23-year-old Paul Willemse, who might have done so much to stabilise the Bulls’ resources at lock in this post-Matfield, Botha, Rossouw and Van der Merwe era.
Meanwhile the Sharks’ Marcell Coetzee recently revealed that he will switch to Ulster after the present campaign, and it will also only be a matter of time, you fancy, before Bok second-row colossus Eben Etzebeth – his Newlands contract ends this year – is lost to a big-money Euro deal while still only in his mid-twenties.
The general trend in the years from 2011 onward has been for South Africa to produce one or two “competitive” teams (several rank no-hopers, too) in terms of the Super Rugby title picture, yet ones still not quite capable of sustaining a challenge all the way to the happiest possible outcome.
My fear is that it won’t get any better than that in the next few seasons ... and possibly only worsen, despite the supposed (but still relatively minor?) advantage now of less arduous overseas tour rosters for our half-dozen teams.
The merciless, accelerating player drain to cash-flush northern pastures means that chickens are going to come home to roost for us in Super Rugby.
Our sides will almost always find themselves “rebuilding” rather than assembling all-conquering armies in the manner of, say, the Crusaders, Bulls or Brumbies of yesteryear.
The scoreboard since 1996 reads: 13 NZ Super Rugby titles, four by Aussie side, three SA (all Bulls). We hold the wooden spoon, and only look more, rather than less, likely to keep the unwanted utensil.
Alternative, more upbeat points of view highly welcome, of course, and let me add that I never completely write off this country’s general ability to surprise when the chips appear stubbornly down.
Surprise, rather than expectation, is as good as things will get.
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing