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What’s happening in the South African conference?

Elisha Pearce Columnist

By Elisha Pearce, Elisha Pearce is a Roar Expert

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    The Cheetahs celebrating a job well done. (AFP PHOTO / Saeed KHAN)

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    Usually by the eve of Super Rugby Round 11, I’m able to say I’ve got a handle on the South African conference. That’s not so this year.

    Right now the top South African side has only the fifth best points total in the competition. The fourth placed Stormers are only four points behind the leading Bulls. Sandwiched in between are the Cheetahs and the Sharks.

    I’m not saying by Round 11 the South African conference is always done and dusted, just that I usually have a much better ‘feel’ of what might happen.

    The top team or two has started to establish their position at the top of the pecking order and that’s just not the case this year.

    A close table isn’t the only way it’s become hard to judge the sides. The styles and qualities of the teams seem to be fluctuating wildly.

    The Sharks were the team who played the best rugby of the South African sides last year. That was mostly done over the back half of the year and continued through to a final which was a bridge to far (or plane ride too far).

    That side hasn’t looked at all similar this year. There is a lack of attacking potency and aggressive intent.

    Their defensive record is the best in the competition, but that same defensive line isn’t turning over ball or rocking back ball runners too often. Most sides manage to kick penalties against the Sharks, which demonstrates how hard scoring tries is.

    But the fact there is so many kickable chances shows they do employ a “bend-don’t-break” style rather than a dominant turnovers and counter-attacking style.

    Safe to say, that’s vastly different to the team who pounced on ruck deficiencies and flooded down the field with the ball after turnovers last year.

    Second in the conference are the Cheetahs who are continuing an upward trend from last year’s feisty attacking outfit. Suddenly they’ve found a backbone and aren’t leaking bundles of points together or killing themselves with stupid mistakes.

    But where are the mistakes? What about shooting themselves in the foot? Allowing points in bunches? All those typical Cheetahs features?

    In previous years it was the composure and a certain frailty that let the Cheetahs down. This year they’ve shown heart and application in loads. They’ve also travelled already which puts them in a fine position for the rest of the competition. Look out.

    Defence has been a strong point for the Stormers but it’s that stuttering attack that has caused them to stumble again. Last year they led the competition in defensive aggression and solidity. They were bundled out of the competition when being able to adapt and counter-attack was asked of them and no response came.

    This year the coaching staff have tried to expand their attacking abilities; notably, trying Elton Jantjies at fly-half.

    As a team there has been an obvious willingness to move the ball more as well. But it just hasn’t happened for them yet.

    And look at the games they’ve played so far: Bulls, Sharks, Chiefs, Brumbies, Crusaders, Cheetahs and Sharks. It might be the hardest draw so far and they’re only now going on their big tour.

    We don’t even have the Lions to talk about which is strange in itself. Their replacements, the Kings have been a great addition to the tournament though.

    They’ve made a name for themselves with a very plucky and, on balance, successful tour of Australia and New Zealand. They came away with more points than many believed was possible.

    It doesn’t seem like they’re going to figure in the finals but are only 13 points back from the Bulls.

    They certainly haven’t disgraced themselves up ’til now, that’s for sure.

    The only side with any semblance of consistency from game to game, indeed from last year to this are the Bulls who sit atop the log. That consistency has come in runs of wins or losses for the Bulls; three wins, three losses and now a two game win-streak is how their season has unfolded.

    Fairly enough the losses have come against better teams in the competition but that also points out the fact they’ve not beaten anyone really good yet.

    That is unless you include beating the Stormers, Sharks or Cheetahs who are just below them on the log.

    Yep, that South African conference is all very weird and circular so far.

    Safe to say there’s a hell of a lot of shaking-out to occur in that top group of four teams this year. If there was a conference that doesn’t provide three teams for the finals this year I’d bet on this one. It may be they fight each other so closely no two teams standout far enough to qualify both.

    At the moment the Cheetahs are only in sixth overall by the skin of their teeth with the Sharks and Hurricanes on the same number of points and a game in hand.

    The Stormers and Sharks have arrived in New Zealand for their tour now. The next few weeks could be big in the South African conference. Both teams will need to emulate the successes of the Cheetahs and Bulls while they were away.

    Elisha Pearce
    Elisha Pearce

    Long-time Roarer Elisha Pearce joined us as a rugby union expert in 2015. He also works for Fairfax Media and has confused more Roarers with his name than anyone in the history of the site.

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    The Crowd Says (21)

    • April 26th 2013 @ 1:46am
      dadiggle said | April 26th 2013 @ 1:46am | ! Report

      I have to laugh.

      First of all Stormers went from WP RUGBY to pure South African up north rugby. That is kick the ball out and try and win the line out. Cause Peter Grant is not as good as tactical boot as the Kickbot 3000 (Steyn) They had to graft hard to get the yards up field. You will see the ones they actually scored are Some of the best tries.

      What happened to the Sharks? Simple same thing that happened to the Bulls when they lost Fourie Du Preez who was responsible for running things for the Bulls as he was one of the best tactical kickers and pivots in the game.

      The Sharks lost Michelak. He was their creator and he is the master of flat ball. Lambie was never and never will be the guy running things. He is a boot that can take and make a tackle. But for the Sharks theIr 9 is running the show and making decisions and he is no FdP. So the Sharks, Kings, Bulls and Stormers are all 4 playing kick and chase and trying to win the line out. That is why derby games can be tight as they are difficult cause its like playing tennis with a wall. Both teams playing same way which equals snore fest at times. If you win the line outs against South African teams they are in trouble as its their source of attacking platform.

      Kings Bulls game cause the Greek do not have the bOOT of Steyn its a kicking game till one makes a mistake in your own area and that is where they will attack from. The Bulls did something that was unpredictable once and they scored a try. The Vermaak try where Catrakilis dropped back to fullback and they spread it wide. Really bad defense from the fullback hanging out on the wing and committed to early then Catrakilis attempting something that looked more like trying to get away from where he have to make a tackle than anything else.

      • April 26th 2013 @ 10:18am
        Krys said | April 26th 2013 @ 10:18am | ! Report

        Agree with losing Michalak, he was in sublime form too. That and they are missing Bismarck and Alberts.

    • Roar Guru

      April 26th 2013 @ 1:54am
      biltongbek said | April 26th 2013 @ 1:54am | ! Report

      Sharks.

      Their engine room isn’t firing, no Bismarck, no Beast, no Willem Alberts, and only just seen the return of Jean Deysel and Anton Bresler. So they have been struggling up front and in the breakdowns.

      Then their Stars haven’t been firing, Frans Steyn has been woefull, Lambie have struggled to control, Kankowski is under par, then the backline, no JP Pietersen, No Ludick and now no Jordaan.

      Cheetahs

      They won’t make the play offs as much as I want them to, one or two key injuries and they are done and dusted.

      Bulls.
      Firstly let me say they were a tad unfortunate to lose to the Brumbies and Reds. Apart from that they have completed their tour and are now in the pound seats, of all the SA teams they have the “easier” fixtures left.

      Stormers.

      Can’t honestly say what is going on their, lack of new ideas?

      • April 26th 2013 @ 2:39am
        dadiggle said | April 26th 2013 @ 2:39am | ! Report

        Lambie never controlled the game. Go have a look. They play of the 9.

        As for Stormers. Well before Super Rugby the national coach get together with Franchises and tells them what he wants and how he is going to play so they must go in that direction. That is why the Stormers play kick and chase just like any other South African team. What did Grant do wrong last year? Nothing. Flat on attack deep on slow ball. They played in wet conditions with locks playing as Loosies and wet behind the ears Kolisi as well as with two inside centers. Look at Stormers with JdV and Jacque Fourie vs Stormers with JdV and JdJ.

        • Roar Guru

          April 26th 2013 @ 3:04am
          biltongbek said | April 26th 2013 @ 3:04am | ! Report

          They don’t just play off nine, and I am talking about his tactical kicking.

      • April 26th 2013 @ 6:08am
        Brendon said | April 26th 2013 @ 6:08am | ! Report

        I don’t know if that’s right about the cheetahs.. They already lost goosen and it hasn’t stopped them. Plus with a fairly easy draw compared to the rest of the SA teams, I expect them to finish in the wildcard area. If the Bulls drop a game, watch out!

      • April 26th 2013 @ 8:37am
        Elisha Pearce said | April 26th 2013 @ 8:37am | ! Report

        How much easier are the Bulls fixtures than the Cheetahs though, biltongbek?

        You may be right that the Cheetahs can’t make the finals but they’ve finished their tour too. The Sharks are just going on theirs now and will probably need to do more than kick 5 goals and defend to get wins overseas. Going to be interesting times in the SA conference the next few rounds.

    • April 26th 2013 @ 3:38am
      Felix said | April 26th 2013 @ 3:38am | ! Report

      Stormers are trying to play perfect rugby,this years plan is very different to last year,the attacking & defending balance so to say,I can see steady progress in attack,they were a bit unlucky vs cheetahs but by no means were they outclassed,look out next

      • April 26th 2013 @ 7:41am
        nickoldschool said | April 26th 2013 @ 7:41am | ! Report

        Agree. Haven’t written off the Stormers quite yet. I have actually tipped them for a win in welly this w-e.

        That’s a quality side, I just think nothing has been gong their way so far but they arent far off the mark I reckon. These guys have tries in them and there are holes in Canes defence.

        15. Joe Pietersen,14. Gio Aplon,13. Juan de Jongh,12. Jean de Villiers (captain),11. Bryan Habana,10. Gary van Aswegen,9. Dewaldt Duvenage,8. Duane Vermeulen (vice-captain),7. Michael Rhodes,6. Siya Kolisi,5. Andries Bekker,4. De Kock Steenkamp,3. Pat Cilliers,2. Deon Fourie,1. Steven Kitshoff

        • April 26th 2013 @ 8:40am
          Elisha Pearce said | April 26th 2013 @ 8:40am | ! Report

          I’ve been thinking along these lines for the entire season on the Stormers. They are the sleeping giant. But its not guaranteed they’ll ever fully rise to the occasion. A tour might galanize them and bring the best out?
          If they can’t score tries against the Hurricanes then they never will. Habana is going to have to mark Savea? Or is Savea being dropped for his indescretions?

          • April 26th 2013 @ 9:09am
            Suzy Poison said | April 26th 2013 @ 9:09am | ! Report

            Savea has been dropped, Elisha. Too bad would have been a good clash to watch. Old bull versus young buck.

            • April 26th 2013 @ 9:19am
              Elisha Pearce said | April 26th 2013 @ 9:19am | ! Report

              It would have been interesting to watch. I still really rate Habana. Obviously not as fast but his work ethic makes some loose forwards look lazy.

              Having said that, first week back from injury against Savea would have been hard to deal with!

    • April 26th 2013 @ 9:06am
      Suzy Poison said | April 26th 2013 @ 9:06am | ! Report

      Well it starts tonight doesn’t it. If the Stormers can beat the Canes, they can develop some momentum. Stormers have had a tough draw, so far. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Stormers win three out of four on the road. A loss tonight, will almost kill off any Stormers revival. But who knows, like Bredan Venter says, the Stormers are trying to add attack to their game, whilst the Cheetahs are trying add defence. Most coaches would prefer to be in the Cheetah’s position.

      Overall the South African conference is eating itself. It’s debatable whether or not it’s stronger than the New Zealand conference.
      But there are no easy wins any more. I can’t see a South African team coming close to winning it, but I think the Saffas will have two teams in top six, (Bulls and Stormers) and the Cheetahs will end up just missing out. The Stormers are still only 4 points adrift of the Bulls, despite a few losses, and lying in forth place in the conference. Like Nickoldschool pointed out, that’s a handy team.

      My gut says, it will be a Brumbies versus Crusaders final. With the Bulls, Chiefs, Stormers and Reds making up the top six.

      • April 26th 2013 @ 9:20am
        Elisha Pearce said | April 26th 2013 @ 9:20am | ! Report

        “Overall the South African conference is eating itself” – Hehe, I should have left my Cannibalism point in my final edit! 😛

    • April 26th 2013 @ 10:13am
      Krys said | April 26th 2013 @ 10:13am | ! Report

      Another example of how the conference system is unfair. The South African conference system is highly competitive and that causes cannabilism. The Sharks beat the Cheetahs in the first round, the Cheetahs beat the Sharks last week…. see how this works? Another example is the Stormers v Sharks… there are more. You could say the Kings are easy points, but they aren’t… they still haven’t lost to an Australian side to put things into perspective. I’ve given up on watching the actual competition because of these and many other unfair reasons, so now I just watch the Cheetahs in awe.

      • April 26th 2013 @ 10:32am
        Brendon said | April 26th 2013 @ 10:32am | ! Report

        U say that, but apart from the cheetahs this year, traditionally the SA teams struggle away from SA. The derbys are strong but other aspects of the competition seem to have them at odds as to how to approach it. In years gone by, the SA had two easy wins every year so you can’t really say, one good yr and they have it unfair. Look at the Aus conference, the force beat the reds but the reds have won all their games against NZ and SA opponents this yr. The reds have lost to Aus teams. I like how the cheetahs play and they are the only SA team i enjoy watching, but u cant say that because these teams beat each other that your conference is super strong. It could be that they are all mediocre(unlikely) or they play so similar in styles(likely). Noone say the NZ conference is weak but they seem to beat each other and are losing to the AUS teams this yr. As it stands, it seems to me that the more you can win away from home, with different conditions and styles is the real way of judging how strong a team is

        • April 26th 2013 @ 11:45am
          Krys said | April 26th 2013 @ 11:45am | ! Report

          That is an overplayed myth that South African sides struggle to win away from home… sure, they don’t win as much as when they are at home, but you can say the same about touring NZ and AUS sides to South Africa… despite their tour usually being broken up and only having 2 games.

          • April 26th 2013 @ 12:29pm
            Brendon said | April 26th 2013 @ 12:29pm | ! Report

            I agree that the AUS and NZ teams don’t travel well to SA. But what i mean is, having the SA teams all lose to each other does not necessarily mean the conference is strong. You get judged by how you play in your conference and also the inter-conference games! I truly believe that the SA teams play a similar style( and are good at it) except for the cheetahs. I think this leads to low intense games that can be won by either team. These tactics may not work away from home(and usually don’t) and this doesn’t mean its unfair. An even conference is a better way of explaining the SA one, not strong or weak. I would say the NZ conference isn’t as even at the moment and the AUS one is not too even with the rebels being in shambles this year. This doesn’t relate to AUS being weaker, because they are winning a lot of inter-conference games.

        • Roar Guru

          April 26th 2013 @ 3:38pm
          biltongbek said | April 26th 2013 @ 3:38pm | ! Report

          Brendon.

          Over the past two seasons of the Conference format here are the log ponts earned against cross conference teams.

          Sharks 55
          Crusaders 54
          Stormers 53
          Reds 52
          Chiefs 50
          Hurricanes 48
          Bulls 46
          Cheetahs 45

          Only the Lions are not in the top 8.

    • April 26th 2013 @ 10:17am
      Krys said | April 26th 2013 @ 10:17am | ! Report

      Oh and there is a huge possibility the Cheetahs will make the top 6… they have yet to have their two byes and, although I said they were not easy beats, they still get to play the Kings twice… and the Hurricanes at home (who they have success against)

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