A lesson on when to manage
The latest round of Vodacom Super Rugby delivered a lesson to South African teams on when it is wise to manage your team by rotating selections and when it is not so clever.
The DHL Stormers got it right. They went to Port Elizabeth with a team that featured a couple of newcomers and some exciting youngsters on the bench. The offload that Damian Willemse produced in the build-up to the final Stormers try will give last year’s South African Schools flyhalf massive confidence and there were other players, such as Jaco Coetzee, who also contributed from the bench.
The selection allowed those players who needed it to get a rest, and it afforded game time to those players who are on the fringes and who might be needed later in the competition. The Stormers scored six tries to one, they banked their bonus point, and it was mission accomplished. But with all due respect to the Kings, it was always going to be thus regardless of how much the Stormers mixed and matched their selections. A trip to Port Elizabeth is the right time to rest, manage and experiment.
Although there was some sympathy from this source when the Emirates Lions made a similar decision at a difficult stage of the competition last year, a trip to Buenos Aires is not the right time to field an understrength team. Warren Whiteley’s men found that to their cost on Saturday night, a night where they suffered their first defeat and didn’t even manage to grab a bonus point.
The Lions might well argue that they dropped points in Argentina last year and still made the final. With matches against Australian opposition lined up as the cross-section portion of their 2017 campaign, they also have it much easier than last year when it comes to their fixture list. You could argue that all they really need to do is make sure they stay ahead of the Cell C Sharks and they will make the play-offs.
But hold that phone for a moment: the Lions fell short last year because they didn’t finish top of the overall log and secure a home final; the Sharks showed against the Waratahs that they might mount a stronger challenge this year than they did in 2016; and thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the Jaguares might just be challengers in Africa Conference 2 themselves this year, which would mean those points given away in South America could ultimately prove a double whammy for the Lions.
There are other arguments to forward in favour of the Lions giving it a full go in Buenos Aires – not the least of them being the confidence that could have been gained from scoring a good win in a difficult away venue.
There are no really easy games in the competition, and the Toyota Cheetahs discovered that when they so nearly came unstuck at home against the Sunwolves, but there are surely better times to manage players by rotating selections than an away trip to the Jaguares.
It is early days in the competition and the Lions should be too good for the rest of the teams in their conference, but the current log situation, with the Jaguares and the Sharks locked together with the Lions on nine points, demonstrates the folly of the Lions’ selection decision. There is a counter argument that young players got a chance to play a tough away match in a foreign country, and that will be invaluable experience should they be called upon to play in an away play-off game later in the year, but the negative appears to outweigh the positive in this instance.
The other story of the weekend was the continued failure of the Australian teams to make any kind of impression, with the abject no show of the Waratahs at Kings Park surely being a massive concern for rugby officials and followers Down Under.
The Sharks did well to take the game by the scruff from the outset. They scored after two minutes and that appeared to stun the Waratahs, and after that the Sharks just systematically suffocated them. You could argue that the Sharks just never allowed the Waratahs into the game.
However, the Sharks injuries that helped the Waratahs win the second half 7-6 notwithstanding, it was an abject performance from the Sydney based team. They used to be a problem team for the Sharks, but on their two match tour of South Africa they shipped 92 points. And they are supposedly Australia’s best team!
It was a good performance from the Sharks, and they came up trumps in several areas. However, the elation of winning so well against a historically strong Super Rugby team – they did win the competition a few years back – was undermined by the feeling among the Kings Park faithful afterwards that the Waratahs just didn’t pitch.
And hearing Waratahs captain Michael Hooper praising his team afterwards for the guts his players showed in fighting back in the second half to stop the score from being a complete embarrassment just underlined how far they have slipped.
Chiefs 26 Hurricanes 18
Brumbies 25 Western Force 17
Blues 12 Highlanders 16
Reds 20 Crusaders 22
Southern Kings 10 DHL Stormers 41
Toyota Cheetahs 38 Sunwolves 31
Cell C Sharks 37 Waratahs 14
Jaguares 36 Emirates Lions 24