The Jaguares of Argentina were at the SuperRugby launch at the SuperSport studios in Randburg on Thursday and, despite their loss to the Stormers in a warm-up game, everyone expects them to continue with the attacking, ball-in-hand approach that took them to the semi-finals of last year’s World Cup.
Then again, all of the South African teams have also committed themselves to a more positive, expansive brand of play, with some coaches intimating that local rugby is standing at a crossroads.
The Lions are the team that has been leading the way for South African teams in terms of a new, more high-tempo style of play and they will be the next team to face the Jaguares, albeit in another warm-up game, when they meet at Wits University on Friday night.
And coach Johan Ackermann is expecting a lot from the Argentinians.
“Although the Jaguares lost, Gert Smal of the Stormers told me that they were impressed by them, that they played an exciting brand of rugby. They can all step and offload, they run the ball and really push the pace. It’s basically the Argentina Test side and we couldn’t ask for a better test when it comes to seeing if our players can handle the pressure of SuperRugby,” Ackermann said on Thursday.
That Argentina are now a top-class Test side is beyond dispute, but fielding a team in SuperRugby is a different dynamic for them and flyhalf Martin Landajo says they are treating it all as a learning experience at the moment.
“It was very important for us to have a good World Cup and lots of players from that team are in the Jaguares. But we are just trying to go slowly and try and learn a lot, we must just enjoy it, that’s the most important thing. But the people back home are really happy and we have a lot of support from Argentina rugby fans,” Landajo said.
While the Jaguares will enjoy the lack of expectation that comes with being tournament rookies, the Stormers are always under pressure from their demanding fans, but new coach Robbie Fleck is calling for a “fearless” approach from his team.
“We’ve prepared very well and although we’ve had changes in management and new faces in the team, we still have a quality spine to the side. There are a lot of youngsters, but some of them are 22 or 23 years old and senior players.
“It’s exciting to blood youngsters and develop a new culture, and I feel these are very exciting times for South African rugby as a whole, particularly with all the new coaches on the scene and being in the unique position that we can now really develop players. I want our team to be fearless, even though there is a lot of pressure on them to perform and a lot of pressure off the field,” Fleck said.
The Southern Kings are meeting the Sharks at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth on February 27 in their first game back in Super Rugby since 2013 and, despite their tumultuous build-up, captain Steven Sykes says they will be ready come opening day.
“We’ve done enough so that we can compete, it was very tough only starting our pre-season preparation on January 4, but we’ve had six-day weeks and put in a lot of work so we are prepared. I believe we will be fine depth-wise, there are new players coming in every week, and we have a really nice team environment and facilities.
“We’re in the same shoes as the Lions were in a few years ago in that we have a lot of young players who want to show how they can compete. Plus we have a lot more experience than in 2013 and one of our goals is to make a better showing this year. But we have a good mix that I am excited about,” Sykes said.
Up in Pretoria, Nollis Marais is one of the coaches in their first year of SuperRugby and he has already inculcated a more attacking style of play into the Bulls, having brought it into the Currie Cup campaign in which a callow side went down to Western Province in the semi-finals.
Marais is unapologetic that he has placed his faith in youth.
“We’ve lost a lot of top players but it’s time to adapt, it’s time for new blood and that makes it easier down the line because it’s a long competition. We’ve had a lot of senior players leave and it’s time for the youngsters to step up and take their chance, although they still have a couple of guys that have played SuperRugby before who they can learn from.
“But I believe in the Bulls structures, I’ve been part of the system for five years, and it’s important for South African rugby that we develop the players in the pipeline too. The Bulls once had a lot of senior players and the youngsters couldn’t come through, there was no opportunity for them, but we need to keep an eye on them,” Marais said.
In Durban, there is an optimistic mood after two impressive wins over Toulon and Toulose and coach Gary Gold is happy that the pre-season has gone according to plan.
“We had a very clear strategy pre-season in terms of how we wanted to prepare and the two games in France showed us how far we’ve come in certain areas. But we’re being harsh on ourselves and we know that there are other areas we now need to spend time on.
“We’re very satisfied with the things we’ve worked on, we got reward from those, we’ll bank those, but now we need to sharpen the pencil in other areas. We’d be dumb to think we won’t come a cropper if we don’t spend time and energy on those areas,” Gold said.
While the new complex conference system has its detractors, South African Rugby Union CEO Jurie Roux is banning all such negativity from his thoughts.
“It’s a new era, SuperRugby is now almost a global competition, spanning five continents and 16 time zones. And the great positive is that half the South African teams can now qualify for the playoffs. The key things that make it a win-win for South African rugby are that we play less games, and travel used to be a big issue because our teams used to be unfairly treated, but now we have significantly reduced the tour to Australasia.
“People said they wanted a new product, we’ve given it to them and time will tell whether they like it or not. We wanted six franchises, we’ve got it; we wanted less travel and more derbies, we got that; and we’re playing different teams because people didn’t want to play all the same teams all the time,” Roux said.