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The next game for the Lions is against the Jaguares in BA on 1 Feb 2020, kickoff at 23:40 SA Time.

Year of no excuses delivers mediocre challenge

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Koning Leeu
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    Posted: 24-Jun-2019 at 12:35pm

A quarterfinal round that underlined the predictability of this phase of Vodacom Super Rugby ended the South African participation two weeks before the conclusion and the most depressing thing about it is that, unlike in some previous years, there can’t be any excuses.

Indeed, with one exception it was what all the coaches said last season - 2019 would be the year of no excuses. It would be the year their long term plans should be judged on, and 2018 was part of a process and not an end in itself.

The exception, of course, was the Lions, who knew they’d be losing players this year and would be in a transition phase. And so it proved. They never shaped, at least not to the extent they did before, and it was the reason there is no South African participation in the final fortnight.

The Bulls did make a good fist of their away quarterfinal against the Hurricanes and showed little signs of the jet-lag that must surely have impacted on them after all their travelling when they were pressing towards the end.

The Pretoria team started the season with a flourish and ended the season in a similar fashion. It was what happened in the middle of it that prevented this from being a really good campaign and enabling Pote Human to capitalise fully on what John Mitchell started.

Otherwise though there really wasn’t much to shout about from a South African viewpoint, with the Jaguares easily winning the conference. Yes, we are talking about an international team and yes they do have the depth in their squad to make the rotation that is so critical to success in Super Rugby easier for them than it is for a franchise drawn from provincial or regional resources.

But the Jaguares also travel more than any other team in the competition and this is the first season they have really got it properly together.

Super Rugby will be played to its current format next year before going to something different - and how much that change is needed - in 2021 and we can expect them to win the South African conference even more comfortably next year.

For one of the many depressing things about seeing the South African challenge finally extinguished at the weekend was that any talk about there being some kind of light at the end of the tunnel or encouragement to be taken from the performances for next year was just hot air. You can’t relate this year to next year when you are likely to have so many players missing and will be building again from scratch.

Which brings us back to the season in review - most of the squads started the year with enough experience and continuity to make a fist of their challenge in the final year of the four-season cycle. Let’s look at the various franchises and how they went:

UNDER-ACHIEVERS

Sharks fans might reckon their team were the real under-achievers given how they surrendered so meekly at home in games they should have been expected to win, but given the names on paper in their pack, the real under-achievers have to be the Stormers. When at full strength, that forward unit was pretty much a Springbok pack.

Of course “full-strength” is the key word there. When were the Stormers at full-strength? Very seldom. By the end, they had a Currie Cup strength side playing for them, with most of the big names watching from the sidelines.

Why was this so? It would be easy to point to the lack of rotation in selection early on, something that might have been forced on Robbie Fleck and his management by the draw, which for the second year running had them travelling for most of the first part of the competition. After their cataclysmic defeat to the Bulls in the first round, they were up against it and needed all hands on deck when they headed on tour.

They did quite well to correct a bit just before that tour, with wins over the Lions (home), Sharks (away) and Jaguares (home) stabilising their challenge, but they may made strategy/tactical mistakes in the first two tour games that cost them critical momentum.

They could have beaten the Hurricanes in Wellington but overdid the forward emphasis, and a week later they went too far in the other direction against the Blues in Auckland.

The narrow loss to the Brumbies in Cape Town was a big step backwards at the start of what was supposed to be a winning home run.

But if they had the same team, and played with the same intensity in all of their games as they did when they drew with the Crusaders and beat the Highlanders, they would have challenged not just for the conference but the overall title. When they lost to the Lions with half a team in the third-last game their season was effectively over.

JEKYLL AND HYDE

There’s been a lot of focus in the debate over Robert du Preez’s future as coach at the start on his deportment in front of the media, and as that is his interface with the public, and the selling of the brand depends so much on it, it is understandable that there is concern.

The more pressing questions though are ones that relate to a) the Du Preez management style and b) the template he coaches his team to play. On both questions, there are enough grounds to suggest his days as coach should be numbered, and they probably will be.

Those who have ins to the Sharks camp will tell you that there has been concern among players and coaching staff that too often it appears there are a different set of rules that Du Preez applies to some players and not to others. The selection of his son, Robert junior, as flyhalf ahead of Curwin Bosch for most of the season, gave rise to a furious debate, and not just in Durban.

When it comes to the game-plan, it was not just this season that the line started to be pedalled that if the Sharks don’t bully you into submission physically they can’t win.

It was a perception that started in the previous two seasons. There was a brief period, when they beat the Sunwolves away and then hammered the Blues at home, where there was positive talk about the contribution of attack coach David Williams and perhaps the introduction of some guile to their offensive play.

That died though on the day the Stormers, on one of those occasions when the Cape team did have an almost full strength pack, came to town. The Sharks weren’t able to bully, and as a consequence they looked like they’d had plastic bags tied down over their heads.

The high points of the season for the Sharks would be a toss up between their big win over the Lions in Johannesburg, something that before this year didn’t happen often, and their draw with Crusaders in Christchurch. That is what frustrates Sharks fans though - the knowledge that their team is capable of beating the best, but consistency is an issue.

There is a perception that the Sharks just don’t try on some days, and it is probably an accurate perception, but it would be unfair to suggest that was the case in the final weeks.

The Sharks did well to dig deep and score that last gasp try against the Stormers that got them to the quarters, and the fact that they dominated possession and still lost heavily to the Brumbies was a demonstration of coaching deficiency rather than lack of effort.

HOW THE MIGHTY HAVE FALLEN

If you want an example of how important the names on a team sheet are to chances of success, just look at the Chiefs.

On the days they had their top players present, and we are just talking two or three big names here, they were brilliant. On the days they were under-strength, they were nowhere.

Certainly at the end of the season the Chiefs showed what might have been possible had Brodie Retallick and Sam Cane been playing the entire year and they came within a whisker of ending the Jaguares dream in Buenos Aires in their quarterfinal.

The same can be said of the Lions, who lost a raft of players in the off-season, and then were again forced to go without key players at critical stages during their campaign. They started well by beating the Jaguares and were also much better than the Stormers for the first 40 minutes at Newlands a week later.

Then what happened? Go back in the archives, or consult the video, and you will see where the Lions went wrong, when their momentum was halted.

The momentum shift came when Warren Whiteley left the field in Cape Town. That’s one leader and talisman. Another is Kwagga Smith. When Smith was ruled out after the impressive win over the Stormers in the third last game, that was effectively the Lions’ season done.

The player they probably missed the most though was Franco Mostert, who headed for England at the end of last season. You don’t replace Mostert’s work-rate easily and the summation of the Lions’ failure this season would probably focus on the lower work-rate of a previously very busy pack.

PROGRESS, BUT NOT ENOUGH

The Bulls started the year rated by many as the likely top South African team, and in the end that proved correct. What they failed to do though was win the conference, and that meant they were condemned to fly back to New Zealand for their quarterfinal just a week after returning from their tour.

Going back to Wellington was always going to be a bridge too far for them, and in the end they came much closer than most would have anticipated. An X-factor moment here, a more accurate pass there and the Bulls could well have pulled off an unlikely victory.

That they didn’t win the conference, which would have secured home advantage in the first playoff fixture, was down to several factors. One was the injuries. The tone was set when the would be captain for the season, Lood de Jager, was injured before the season even started. Imagine how formidable that Bulls pack would have been with De Jager in it.

There were also injuries to other key players during the course of the competition that cost the Bulls. But then they also appeared to lose concentration and focus at critical stages in the middle of the season and that cost them too.

The trend was set in the opening two weeks - a great win over the Stormers in Pretoria, and then a complete misfire against the Jaguares a week later.

The big one though was the unexpectedly massive defeat at the hands of the Chiefs in Pretoria just when the Bulls were picking up impressive momentum, which had included a comfortable away win over the Lions and an equally emphatic triumph over the Sharks.

The Chiefs were given little chance in that game and the Bulls started as overwhelming favourites. The Chiefs did play well that day and may have won anyway but the Bulls played like a team that was starting to believe its own press.

The Crusaders were brilliant the night they visited Loftus and the Bulls can’t really be faulted for being way behind a team that everyone is inferior to, but the last minutes of the home game against the Jaguares saw them play inexcusably lazy rugby that led to an unexpected defeat. Not only did that result hurt the Bulls, it also inspired the Jaguares, who never looked back from there.

In terms of game plan, the Bulls did progress from what was started by Mitchell, with the new coach ensuring that traditional strengths supplemented the new angles to the Bulls game, and the recruitment of the experienced duo of Duane Vermeulen and Schalk Brits made a massive difference to the Bulls when it came to onfield composure and direction.

But while progress was made, the knowledge that the Bulls will be losing half their team between now and next year, and almost all their game drivers, makes it seem it was all in vain. And that pretty much pertains to the entire South African challenge. If there was going to be a good year, it had to be this one.

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Jong Leeu
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Niela Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 24-Jun-2019 at 12:59pm
Mostert is simply a machine. He was a huge loss for us this year.

RG Snyman and Eben Etzebeth will most likely be the bok locks, with a guy like sous on the bench. That is actually amazing , considering how mush of an impact he had not being in the lions side this year,
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Transvaal Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 24-Jun-2019 at 1:36pm
RG Snyman speel redelike goeie rugby op die oomblik, Etzebeth maak staat op sy reputasie
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