What would the country’s five Super Rugby franchises wish as main presents in their stockings on December 25?
Rob Houwing, Sport24
BULLS: A new pair of world-class locks
Has any rugby side – ever! – suddenly surrendered not just two but three proven world-class locks all in one go? It’s hard to think of an instance which remotely matches the Bulls’ fate in losing the services of all of Victor Matfield (retirement), Bakkies Botha (Toulon) and Danie Rossouw (Suntory Goliath) after the 2011 season.
The trio, admittedly with Rossouw often operating as a loose forward although his versatility was a sublime asset, contributed hugely to a hatful of Bulls trophy-grabs in either Super Rugby or the Currie Cup over the course of 12 generally glittering years at Loftus for Botha and Rossouw and 10 for lineout juggernaut Matfield.
Fortunately Flip van der Merwe and Juandre Kruger are no slouches as the likely start-out second row pair in Super Rugby 2012, although the former has sometimes shown disturbing signs of trying too hard to emulate Bakkies’s penchant for collecting cards … and no, not of the Christmas kind.
SHARKS: A quality midfield
This has been an Achilles heel for the Durbanites for some time, with the centre shortage not exactly helped by evergreen Stefan Terblanche’s exit for Ulster (mind you, at 36 it’s questionable how much more the adaptable ex-Bok might have offered Super Rugby anyway).
They were too porous through the midfield in 2011 – remember, particularly, the 32-12 trouncing by the conference-topping Stormers at Newlands? – and it may be optimistic to expect former Newlands-based fringe player Tim Whitehead to be the key to turning their woes around in this department. Meyer Bosman and the 32-year-old Marius Joubert are still part of the furniture, although “supersub” Adi Jacobs has been pursuing new pastures.
Perhaps with Riaan Viljoen having arrived to beef up the Sharks’ fullback ranks, wonder boy Pat Lambie will be asked to pull the strings at No 12 from early next year? It seems one constructive method toward regaining a midfield Midas Touch …
STORMERS: A tight five finally with the grunt to secure trophies
When all is said and done, it’s in the uncompromising boiler room where key matches at business ends of tournaments still tend to be won or lost. And is it any coincidence that the Cape-based outfit continue to come up short in semis or finals at either Super Rugby or Currie Cup level?
Re-run the recordings of some of those games featuring Schalk Burger’s side and you will notice a common pattern: their being “munched” at the set-piece. Yes, under the guiding hand of hefty forwards coach Matt Proudfoot, the tight five at Newlands is certainly better than it was three or four years ago … they can’t have been too bad; the Stormers won the SA conference in 2011!
But they continue to be more workmanlike than pure quality as a unit – something exposed when the Crusaders had them backpedalling at a rate of knots at scrum-time in the heavy, heartbreaking semi-final reverse in Cape Town. The lopsided reliance on Andries Bekker for good lineout ball is unhealthy, too … expect further injury snags to the unusually lanky customer if he is overplayed once more.
And if “Dries” goes down, so might the entire front five, in many respects … even if fit-again lock partner Rynhardt Elstadt and exciting teenage loosehead Steven Kitshoff might just be global forces to be reckoned with two or three years up the drag.
LIONS: The financial stability to continue their renaissance
The rumour-mill has been abuzz with gossip that the Currie Cup-winners are back in the cash-flow dwang, after their much-publicised bust-up with supposed tycoon saviours Robert Gumede and Ivor Ichikowitz.
Of course Kevin de Klerk and company moved swiftly and angrily to reject such suggestions, but in a broad climate of economic hardship there is bound to be some nervousness among Lions supporters about the prospect of being able to genuinely build on the glory of October 29 when the Sharks were inspiringly (depending on your point of view) taken to the cleaners.
Next step upward, surely, has to be a far better showing in Super Rugby 2012 – the Lions were only “deprived” of the wooden spoon on the overall log earlier this year by the ineptitude of the rookie Rebels franchise. Now, can they comfortably pay the salaries of Jaco Taute, Elton Jantjies, Josh Strauss, Derick Minnie and company to ensure priceless continuity under John Mitchell’s astute tutelage?
CHEETAHS: An electric fence to keep predators away
They always have such a fantastic nursery down Bloemfontein way, don’t they? Er, to eventually serve hawk-eyed other franchises, or course. It’s simply a fact of life that the Cheetahs will churn out massively promising young talent across the park and then have to regroup once more as the brightest of those gems invariably get plucked away by more cash-flush or high-profile rival unions.
Who’ll be next to head for Durban (an old prime destination), Cape Town (where one Rassie Erasmus doubtless still monitors Free State rugby trends keenly) or Pretoria, where a potentially vulnerable new chapter of life in the Bulls corral is about to begin?
Touch wood, the Cheetahs – an improved force in Super Rugby 2011, remember – will stay relatively intact for the next few months, but it may be only a matter of time before the likes of Johan Goosen, Robert Ebersohn, Coenie Oosthuizen and others are coaxed over the razor-wire and toward more dazzling lights …