After two weeks of doom and gloom, the four South African sides are entering the penultimate weekend of their separate tours, which could drastically transform their Vodacom United Rugby Championship ambitions.
After three rounds, you might question what there is to be enthusiastic about if you glance at the log. All four teams are towards the bottom, and the progress achieved this weekend in terms of upward projection was minor. But in terms of results, and a sign of just how much progress has been made in a very short time, the message that was hammered out on a weekend where there were two SA triumphs, one draw and a close defeat was a clear one.
While the 20 months of isolation had definitely harmed the South African game, the message was that the indigenous players and coaches are quick learners. Some of the foreign pundits had a patronizing attitude in the first round, and it was still there in the second, but it has now vanished totally.
THE YARDSTICK ARE THE IRISH OPPONENTS.
There is one caveat, though. This weekend, no local teams competed against Irish teams. Anyone who watched the previous edition of this competition, the Pro14, will recall that the Irish teams were the dominant force and will serve as the true barometer for SA’s growth.
The Irish have a strong domestic set-up thanks to central contracting, which was essentially adopted from the New Zealand model when Ireland’s national team was managed by Kiwi Joe Schmidt.
It should also be emphasized that, with the exception of one, all of Ireland’s provinces were in imperious form this past weekend. Leinster thrashed Zebre, Ulster thrashed Benetton by 20 points, while Munster put on possibly the most awe-inspiring display of the weekend.
The Scarlets were hammered by Johan van Graan’s squad on their home ground of Parc Y Scarlets in Llanelli, proving that their two previous victims, the Cell C Sharks and the DHL Stormers, had no need to be embarrassed.
Munster has been the main contender for Leinster’s title for the past four seasons, and it appears that this trend will continue in the early stages of the competition. The South Africans, on the other hand, have shown that it is far too early to presume that the Irish hegemony will continue by going on the fast upward performance spiral that was demanded of them.
CONSIDER WHAT WILL HAPPEN WHEN BOKS RETURN.
While none of the big Irish teams were victims of the Sharks in the third round, and there is a significant gap between the Irish and the rest, when a team without 12 top players beats the Ospreys by 14 points, as the Sharks did in Swansea, you have to imagine what the scores will be when that team visits SA with the Sharks at full strength.
Likewise, the Stormers were unlucky not to come away with more than a point from their trip to Edinburgh, where they got their first taste of the 4G synthetic pitch. When you add in Rosko Specman, who is expected to join the Stormers after the Springbok commitments are completed in the early summer, the Stormers were down to seven players. When the fans return and teams like Edinburgh are forced to visit Cape Town, it will be difficult for them. Perhaps even more difficult than when the roles are reversed.
The Bulls don’t have as many players as the Boks, but they do have a few crucial players absent. And, in any case, their second-half performance against Cardiff Blues was impressive enough to signal that they will rapidly restore the momentum that has made them the dominant force in South African rugby since the lockout ended a year ago.
At Loftus, where the highveld effect comes into play, they will be a difficult team to handle with for the overseas teams. The Emirates Lions have been competitive in all of their games so far, and came close to winning their second game on the road against the Glasgow Warriors.
MOTIVATION TO REACH THE OBJECTIVE
They face the most difficult challenge this weekend when they travel to Belfast to face Ulster on Friday, but like the other teams, they will go there with the motivation of knowing that a win will put them on track to complete their tour – given the newness of the competition, two wins in four would have been considered the minimum requirement for this first away foray in the new competition.
The Stormers are the only team that has a chance of meeting that goal, but they did earn a losing bonus point in their close loss to Benetton on the opening weekend, so a win over the Dragons won’t put them too far behind.
The lineouts and the inaccuracy rate when in the opponent 22 should be evident work-ons for coach John Dobson. The Stormers would have left Edinburgh with all three points if they had been more patient on offense, as they would have been if they hadn’t leaked on defense in the first six minutes.
Over the final 74 minutes of the game, they outscored Edinburgh 20-6, with the defense correcting itself to the point that Edinburgh was practically carrying the ball backwards during their attempts at phase play. They could have won despite the early 14-0 disadvantage if they had built up one more phase before Tim Swiel, who also missed what could have been a game-winning penalty, fired his game-winning drop attempt off the final play of the game.
THE DEPTH OF BULLS IS THEIR STRENGTH.
The Bulls have a lot of depth, which is impressive. The team that outscored Cardiff by 26 points to three in the second half made eight changes from the week before. And the adjustments made by director of rugby Jake White during the game, including as the addition of Arno Botha, paid off handsomely.
Of course, following the tragic injury to Johan Goosen, the Bulls now have an issue, and flyhalf is a possible problem area across the board in the SA challenge, with the Lions losing two this week and the Stormers being thin in that area.
However, the Sharks’ Boeta Chamberlain made it clear that when South Africans talk about introducing a new bag of tricks to the tournament, it may refer to anything, not simply the offload glitz that was mentioned before the third round began.
The recollection of one Jannie de Beer and his heroics in the 1999 World Cup quarterfinal between the Boks and England in Paris would have old-timers in the UK going into dreadful withdrawals over his hat-trick of drop-goals against the Ospreys.
TEAMS FROM SOUTH AFRICA ADD TO THE COMPETITION.
Overall, this past weekend was a success because it demonstrated what South African teams can bring to the table. Although no points were scored in the second half, the Edinburgh game was fast-paced and entertaining, with the Lions scrum destroying Glasgow and their forwards generally delivering enough to keep the game interesting, and the Bulls and Sharks producing some spectacular plays when they got the bit between their teeth.
The anticipation is building for the final round of this preliminary round, which will take place this week, before the competition resumes in late November with the arrival of international teams. Unfortunately, that does not appear to be the case, with local games now set to be held in Italy, although this just serves to emphasize the importance of local teams winning now.
Cell C Sharks 27 Ospreys 13
Ulster defeated Benetton by a score of 28 to 8.
Zebre 7 Leinster 43
Dragons 35, Connacht 22
The Glasgow Warriors defeated the Emirates Lions by a score of 13 to 9.
20. Edinburgh Stormers DHL 20
Vodacom Bulls 29 Cardiff 19
Scarlets lead Munster by a score of 13 to 43.
SA fixtures this weekend
Emirates Lions vs Ulster (Belfast, Friday 20.35)
DHL Stormers vs. Dragons (Newport, Friday 20.35)
Vodacom Bulls vs. Edinburgh (Edinburgh, Saturday 18.15)
Cell C Sharks vs. Cardiff Blues (Cardiff, Saturday 20.35)