Super Rugby Preview 2018 – SOUTH AFRICA CONFERENCE
On February 17, the 23rd edition of Super Rugby kicks off in Cape Town with the first of 120-regular season matches seeing the Stormers and the Jaguares clash at Newlands. The perennial superpowers of Super Rugby, the Crusaders, secured their eighth Super Rugby title last season, with a 25-18 win over the Lions in Johannesburg. In 2017, 142 matches were played and a total of 978 tries were scored, the highest tries per game ratio in the tournament’s history (6.89/game). Elton Jantjies of the Lions ended up as the tournament’s top points scorer with 197 and Hurricanes powerhouse Ngani Laumape crossed the chalk 15 times to lead the competition. As The Profits resident rugby union contributor, each week I will provide my thoughts, analysis and betting plays for the duration of the competition. Over the next six months, some of the most physical, athletic, skilful and exciting rugby players on the planet will compete for glory in what is arguably the toughest and most competitive provincial rugby tournament in the world.
The 2018 season reverts back to a 15-team, three Conference format with the Western Force (Australia), Cheetahs and Kings (both South Africa) all eliminated from last year’s edition. Each team will play 16 regular season matches that includes eight matches (home and away) against teams in their own Conference and eight matches (home and away) against teams in the other Conferences. The winners of each of the three conferences (Australia, New Zealand and South Africa) will automatically qualify for the quarterfinals, alongside the next five best teams across all Conferences. This format eliminates the contentious issues that have plagued the last few seasons and ensures that the best teams will be represented in the playoff picture.
Below you will find an in-depth analysis of each team in the South African Conference. This is easily the toughest Conference to predict because I feel as if South African rugby is trying to find its feet again and the talent is spread quite evenly. I understand that many of you will think differently, but as we have all figured out over the years, Super Rugby is an extremely tough competition to predict. In the end, that’s what makes it so enjoyable to watch. I look forward to your company throughout the season and make sure you follow me on Twitter (@S15_TheProfits) for last minute tips, insight or just for a chat.
Team Base: Johannesburg, South Africa
Home Stadium: Ellis Park Stadium
Coach: Swys de Bruin (new coach)
Captain: Warren Whiteley (Number 8)
2017 Position (Division/Overall): 1st/Runner-up
Players Gained: No notable inclusions
Players Lost: Acker van der Merwe (Hooker), Ruan Ackermann (Back Row), Faf de Klerk (Halfback)
Superstars: Malcolm Marx (Hooker), Jaco Kriel (Flanker), Warren Whiteley (Number 8)
Rising Prospects: Kwagga Smith (Flanker), Rohan Janse van Rensburg (Centre), Aphiwe Dyanti (Centre)
The Lions successes has breathed life into South African rugby the past three seasons, making the finals on two occasions and playing an extremely attractive brand of rugby. Crowds have flocked back to Ellis Park and the once easy-beats of South African rugby have become the powerhouses. In saying that, they haven’t been able to take their opportunities when it really counted and they were ultimately defeated (17-25) by a more classy and experienced team in the Crusaders on the final day of last season. There was no lack of effort from the Lions under coach Johan Ackermann with the men from Johannesburg having the most carries, run metres, defenders beaten, clean breaks and ruck success in the competition. Their attacking prowess, primarily created by having a dominant forward pack, resulted in 92 tries, only bettered by the Hurricanes (97).
Without the Ackermann-era now in the rear-view mirror, assistant coach Swys du Bruin has stepped into the full-time head coaching roll. JP Ferreira, the defensive coach, has also departed to Munster, so there will certainly be a slight change in game plans, culture and leadership styles. The Lions have also lost the ‘warthog’, Akker van der Merwe and Ackermann’s son, Ruan, two players who provided solid front-foot ball for the halves. They still do possess Test quality players like Malcom Marx, Jaco Kriel, Kwagga Smith and Warren Whiteley. After a disastrous International season with the Springboks, Elton Jantjies will look to rebuild his confidence once again, but he must do so without partner-in-crime, halfback Faf du Klerk. Jantjies decision-making under pressure faded towards the end of last season and teams know that utilising the rush defence against him yields good results.
Prediction: The Lions have been the premier team in South Africa over the past three seasons and they will be eager to continue riding the wave that Johan Ackermann helped curate for them. A few key losses in the off-season, including coach Ackermann will make things a lot more challenging this time around. I really feel that 2017 was their golden opportunity to secure a maiden Super Rugby title and this year will see the franchise lose more games than we have been accustomed to. They should still have enough quality and depth to make the playoffs though, primarily due to a weak South African Conference, but having a legitimate crack at the elusive title seems like a real stretch this year.
Team Base: Durban, South Africa
Home Stadium: Kings Park
Coach: Robert du Preez
Captain: Ruan Botha (Lock)
2017 Position (Division/Overall): 2nd/8th
Key Players Gained: Akker van der Merwe (Hooker), Robert du Preez (Flyhalf), Makazole Mapimpi (Wing)
Key Players Lost: Jean Deysel (Flanker), Cobus Reinach (Halfback), Patrick Lambie (Flyhalf), Odwa Ndungane (Wing)
Superstars: Tendai Mtawawira (Prop), Jean-Luc du Preez (Flanker)
Rising Prospects: Thomas du Toit (Prop), Jeremy Ward (Centre), S’busiso Nkosi, Curwin Bosch (Fullback)
The Sharks will look back on their 2017 season and see it as a one of missed opportunities and inconsistency. Similarly to the year prior, they once again snuck into the finals, where they gave the Lions a real Quarterfinal scare in a 21-23 loss at Ellis Park. Nine victories from their 15 outings was a satisfactory result, but it could’ve been much worse given the fact that they didn’t have to play any New Zealand teams throughout the season. Players like Jean-Luc and Dan du Preez showed their potential and youngster Curwin Bosch announced himself on the world stage with a number of noteworthy performances. Coach Robert du Preez has lured hooker Akker van der Merwe (Lions) and exciting wing Makazole Mapimpi to the coastal city, as well as his third son in the squad, Robert du Preez (flyhalf). The inclusion of Robert du Preez could mean the shift of Bosch to fullback, which will provide him with more time and space to work his magic and unleash the likes of Makazole Mapimpi (11 tries in 2017) and young-gun S’busiso Nkosi.
Prediction: The Sharks are still a work in progress, but I expect more consistent performances from them this season. They have a good blend of youth and experience and if they remain fit, they could challenge for South Africa’s Conference trophy rights.
Team Base: Cape Town, South Africa
Home Stadium: Newlands Stadium
Coach: Robbie Fleck
Captain: Siya Kolisi (Flanker)
2017 Position (Division/Overall): 1st/Quarter-finals
Key Players Gained: Steven Kitshoff (Prop), JJ Engelbrecht (Centre), Sergeal Petersen (Wing)
Key Players Lost: Rhynardt Elstadt (Flanker), Juan de Jong (Centre), Huw Jones (Centre), Cheslin Kolbe (Fullback)
Superstars: Pieter-Steph du Toit (Lock), Eben Etzebeth (Lock), Siya Kolisi (Flanker), Dillyn Leyds (Outside Back)
Rising Prospects: JD Shickerling (Lock), Cobus Wiese (Back Row), Ernst van Rhyn (Back Row), Juarno Augustus (Back Row)
Last season, the Stormers finished atop their conference and were the second ranked team in South Africa (behind the Lions). However, for the third season in a row and the second under Robbie Fleck’s guidance, the Stormers failed to make it out of the Quarterfinals, succumbing to the Chiefs (11-17) in Cape Town for the second straight time. 2017 held more positives than negatives with their attack improving significantly, however, this came at the expense of a weaker defensive unit. They were a strong outfit in front of their own crowd, but their season was derailed after a home loss to the Lions, followed by defeats to the Crusaders, Highlanders and Hurricanes in New Zealand.
Looking ahead to this season, the Stormers still possess a powerful pack with the likes of Wilco Louw, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Siya Kolisi and Eben Etzebeth. Although, the latter looks likely to miss the first four months of the season due to compounding back and shoulder injuries he acquired against Wales in Cardiff in December. His herculean frame and ‘follow me’ leadership style will be missed, but JD Shickerling is a player to keep an eye on to fill that void. Where I see the Stormers falling apart this season will be in their backline. The off-season hasn’t been kind to them with key players like Rob du Preez (flyhalf), Juan de Jong (centre), Huw Jones (centre) and Cheslin Kolbe all having left the franchise. This will put enormous pressure on young stand-off Damien Willemse and Dillyn Leyds, one of the Stormers best attacking threats last season. I also see this season as being make-or-break for Damien de Allende. The former South African touch player burst onto the scene a couple of years ago, but has failed to kick-on for both the Stormers and the Springboks, despite seemingly having so much potential.
Prediction: The Stormers pack is one of the best in the competition, however, they lack good game managers in the halves. They are certainly a chance to make the playoffs, but I wouldn’t expect them to go any further than they have the past two seasons.
Team Base: Buenos Aires, Argentina
Home Stadium: Estadio Jose Amalfitani
Coach: Mario Ledesma (new coach)
Captain: Agustin Creevy (Hooker)
2017 Position (Division/Overall): 3rd/10th
Key Players Gained: Tomas Cubelli (Halfback)
Key Players Lost: Lucas Noguera Paz (Prop), Santiago Cordero (Wing), Manuel Montero (Wing)
Superstars: Agustin Creevy (Hooker), Nicholas Sanchez (Flyhalf)
Rising Prospects: Marcos Kremer (Lock), Sebastian Cancelliere (Outside Back)
2017 was a much better year for the Jaguares, their second in this competition, winning seven of their 15 games. In saying that, for such an experienced and cohesive squad and given that this team is basically the national team, failure to make the playoffs shouldn’t be accepted. The Jaguares were certainly an improvement on the previous year, but the same issues of ill-discipline (12 yellow cards), desire and an arduous travel schedule continue to plague them. With players like captain Agustin Creevy, flanker Pablo Matera, flyhalf Nicholas Sanchez and fullback Joaquin Tuculet all capable of mixing it with the best on the world stage, the results simply haven’t gone the Jaguares way. As a result, coach Raul Perez has been sacked and has been replaced by Pumas legend and Australia’s most recent scrummaging coach, Mario Ledesma. The former hooker has been brought in to instil a hard-nosed approach and sure up the set piece, once a real weapon for the Argentinians. They may find it difficult this year though with first-choice props Ramiro Herrera and Lucas Noguera Paz unavailable having been lured to Europe in the off-season.
The Pumas must return to their roots this season and will need to find a better balance and avoid the ‘attack at all costs mentality. At times over the past two seasons, they have made things more difficult for themselves than they have needed to be, either rushing the pass or trying to play too much rugby in their own half. Once again, the playoffs aren’t out of the question, but they will need to significantly improve their disciplinary record and find a way to better cope with their travel schedule if they want to progress out of the group stage. I’m not writing them off entirely, but Ledesma may need at least a season to get things moving in the right direction, especially in his engine room.
Team Base: Pretoria, South Africa
Home Stadium: Loftus Versfeld
Coach: John Mitchell (new coach)
Captain: Nic de Jager (Back Row) and Burger Odendaal (Centre)
2017 Position (Division/Overall): 3rd/15th
Key Players Gained: No notable inclusions
Key Players Lost: Arno Botha (Back Row), Jan Serfontein (Centre)
Superstars: Lood de Jager (Lock), Handre Pollard (Flyhalf)
Rising Prospects: RG Snyman (Lock), Embrose Papier (Halfback), Warrick Gelant (Fullback)
The 2017 season was a year to forget for the Bulls, only managing four wins over the course of the season (Sunwolves, Jaguares, Cheetahs, Sharks). Loftus Versfeld was once considered one of the toughest grounds in world rugby to play at, but gone are the days of Bakkies Botha, Victor Matfield, Fourie du Preez and Bryan Habana (just to name a few). Unfortunately, the lack of results in recent seasons has also seen attendance figures dwindle to an all-time low. The Bulls scrum success was the third worst in the competition, their lineout and driving maul lacked the precision and accuracy of yesteryear and they struggled to accumulate points when in decent scoring positions.
The Bulls remain a young team and they’ll eventually blossom under new coach John Mitchell. Mitchell is ‘no-nonsense’ coach and can take partial credit for the attacking nature and success of the Lions, a franchise he and former All Black Carlos Spencer once coached before Johan Ackermann. However, their lack of world-class players (barring Lood de Jager and Handre Pollard) and inability to lure any decent talent to Pretoria in the off-season will put a lot of pressure on the squad’s youngsters.
Prediction: It’s been four long seasons since the Bulls last made the playoffs and seven years (2010) since they won the last of their three titles. The player drain has had a significant effect on their franchise and unfortunately for them, another dire season looks to be on the cards. They’ll score some good tries, but they’ll struggle on the road and finishing in the top three in the African conference looks highly unlikely.