Cape Town – The record early start to Super Rugby 2020, and associated skimpiness of any “pre-season”, presents tough challenges to South Africa’s new-look panel of franchise coaches.
Believe it or not, and especially if you are an old-timer who recalls the once Durban-based National Club Championships effectively heralding the serious opening of seasonal rugby hostilities at Easter weekend, the unforgiving month of January officially marks Super Rugby’s kick-off this year.
Day one, the Friday of January 31, features three fixtures, including a floodlit local derby between the Sharks and Bulls at Kings Park, before the Stormers entertain the Hurricanes a day later and the Lions are in action against last season’s SA conference winners the Jaguares in Buenos Aires.
There are no easy matches in there for the South African contingent … which only underlines the importance of them being in a position to (somehow) hit the ground running.
With January so inhumane in temperature terms for rugby in this part of the world, the pre-season is understandably and unusually lean.
It places a sharper focus than last year, as a result, on the second edition of Superhero Sunday, now just over a fortnight away on January 19 and happening at the larger venue of FNB Stadium on the outskirts of Soweto.
Last season’s well-received inaugural event at Cape Town Stadium came two weeks later, on February 3, which meant the quartet of teams were already a little better sharpened for competitive rugby by then, and some had had a prior gallop of sorts.
This time, the jamboree seems rather more “be-all and end-all” of pre-season preparation, which could also translate into a greater likelihood of the coaches fielding starting combinations a little closer to first-team in character than in some cases in 2019.
The scheduling bag has been shaken up from last year, too; on this occasion the Sharks face the Stormers in the early game and then the Lions square up to Highveld rivals the Bulls.
With Super Rugby beginning two weeks onward from it, it seems to make sense for all of Pote Human (Bulls), Sean Everitt (Sharks), John Dobson (Stormers) and Ivan van Rooyen (Lions) to wish to see their strongest combinations do duty for at least a significant portion of the Sunday spectacular – there will probably be no further chance until Super Rugby gets started itself.
If that is the case, then the public in the Big Smoke should get pretty generous sightings of World Cup-winning Springboks on the two-game bill.
That would be especially welcome given the stark fact that the clear majority of the current, victorious national squad now ply their professional trades in northern climes and are already up and running in various competitions there.
While the franchise masterminds will be just a little paranoid about exposing their locally-based Bok assets to the risk of injury in an event just outside of Super Rugby-proper, they will also be very conscious of the fact that the Webb Ellis Cup heroes will be carrying significant cobwebs – perhaps the more polite expression to employ than hangovers? – after the emotional demands of RWC 2019 and then the extended period of heady, open-top bus parades countrywide.
It could be a while yet before the home-based Boks return to fullest capabilities both physically and mentally, and Superhero Sunday will be one opportunity to begin the “correction” quest.
In that respect, the Stormers’ Dobson will be a special subject of attention when it comes to his selection strategy at FNB Stadium in a fortnight.
He is in the blessed position of having available, especially, the nucleus of the powerhouse Bok first-choice pack: loosehead prop Steven Kitshoff, likely to now be the regular first choice in green and gold with Tendai Mtawarira’s retirement, hooker Bongi Mbonambi, tighthead Frans Malherbe, as well as captain Siya Kolisi and co-loose forward Pieter-Steph du Toit.
Do you start men like these entirely “cold” (even if that hardly seems a fitting word) in 2020 rugby against the formidable Hurricanes at Newlands on February 1?
You wouldn’t think so: they’d benefit from some exertions at the pre-season spectacle …*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing