South African rugby will get a good indication of where we’re at this weekend when the Bulls come up against the Blues in the first overseas game for a local side against New Zealand opposition.
Judging by the pace and intensity of the New Zealand derbies so far, they certainly seem to be out in front by comparison, but it’s been pleasant to see the Lions dominate the two Australian franchises they have played against and the Sharks have also beaten two Australian sides.
We’re definitely way ahead of the Australian teams, that’s as clear as day and has been convincingly shown in the first month of SuperRugby.
The one positive for the Bulls starting their tour against the Blues is that they can be quite careless in possession sometimes, they tend to make mistakes, and the Bulls have enough quality Springboks to take advantage of those.
You could see immediately when Adriaan Strauss came on last weekend against the Sunwolves how he tightened up the set-pieces, and people will realise this year how lucky the Springboks have been over the last 15 years to have John Smit, Bismarck du Plessis and Adriaan Strauss as hookers – all dead-eye dick throwing in at the lineouts and really good scrummagers.
The Bulls match against the Sunwolves showed the level of improvement by the Japanese side. Last year in Bloemfontein and Pretoria, the Sunwolves lost by a combined 142-20; this year they only lost 72-52, which shows how far they have come. They definitely deserve to stay in SuperRugby.
The Bulls have still to hit their straps, but guys are coming back from injury. Their first two tries against the Sunwolves were very easy – the first coming from a knock-on five metres from the line and the second from a lineout drive. You can be certain the Bulls will maul whenever they have a lineout in your 22, so why did the Sunwolves compete on that throw?
They certainly pushed the Bulls, but you can see a real emphasis from them on offloading in the tackle. It’s a high risk, high reward approach and in the first half the Bulls threw a few 50/50 passes and they never really got going, there was no flow to their game.
But the Sunwolves scrummed relatively well against them and that gave the tourists energy. The Bulls struggled because of a combination of the scrums, their own mistakes and some cracking counter-attacking tries by the Sunwolves.
It was great to see Jan Serfontein play so well. He’s a former World U21 Player of the Year and also played for the Springboks while he was still U21. It was a special try he scored running that inside line from a lineout and then around the wing. Jan has reached maturity now, having first played for the Springboks in 2013, but he was unlucky with injury last year.
The Bulls have a quality midfield unit and in fact we are really lucky in South Africa with very good, quality centres, especially at number 13 – Jan, Lionel Mapoe, Lukhanyo Am, EW Viljoen and Francois Venter. At inside centre we have Damian de Allende, Rohan Janse van Rensburg and Juan de Jongh.
It was only the third week back from long-term injury for Handre Pollard and he still needs to get his kicking rhythm back, but that’s just practice.
The Lions’ performance last weekend was a definite positive, against a Reds team with so many Wallabies, to beat them so convincingly and to play so well. The tightness of their defence, in particular, will give them a lot of satisfaction.
Courtnall Skosan really put his hand up with four tries. He has a very high work-rate off the ball and always backs up his players in the middle of the field, he doesn’t just stay in the tramlines. Courtnall is always supporting with great lines and has always had a great sense of space. When he was at the Bulls, he wasn’t so quick and I know he’s gone to a speed coach and has got an extra yard or two because of that.
Because of a relative lack of wings in recent times and an over-reliance on JP Pietersen and Bryan Habana, with Lwazi Mvovo, the fact that Courtnall played so well is encouraging. Centre is looking very strong, but wings need to stand up and Courtnall did just that.
The Lions’ set-piece is also so strong that they rarely need to kick to exit. They know that if they can get a scrum penalty around halfway, then they’ll be five metres from the line with the kick. For all their great attacking play, the Lions still use traditional South African strengths.
Their forwards are not overly big, but they are very sound technically and credit for that must go to Balie Swart and Johan Ackermann for how well-drilled they are.
Speaking about Ackers, he would not be talking about his Gloucester offer unless he was looking for a counter-offer from the Lions or SA rugby, or was seriously considering taking it. But perhaps he wants to go somewhere outside his comfort zone, where he can work with different players from all over the world. They are players he has not signed, so he would have to impress them and create unity in that new team.
Michael Cheika has coached in a couple of places overseas, Eddie Jones has been all over, Steve Hansen coached for a bit in Wales and Wayne Smith had some time with Northampton, and if you have aspirations to be an international coach then you have to broaden your horizons.
It’s a difficult decision for Johan, but going to Gloucester would certainly improve his coaching set and those sort of offers don’t come around often. But there will be a whole host of factors for him to consider, most importantly his family.
There’s been no word on whether Swys de Bruin would go with him, but as a head coach you need people around you with the same philosophy and drive, who you trust implicitly, and normally the English clubs allow you to bring one assistant with you. You need people who will back you when things are not going so good.
The Cheetahs host the Sharks this weekend having struggled in Buenos Aires. To be fair, the Jaguares played very well and got points on the board early on. So the Cheetahs were compelled to play catch-up rugby and they will be a bit upset with the tries they conceded. You don’t want to be chasing the game away from home, especially not in SuperRugby, and the Cheetahs made a lot of errors which put them under pressure, they basically leaked tries.
For one-off trips like to Argentina, the teams are tending to rest guys to freshen them up because it is a long trip. After all, it still comes down to beating the South African sides and then you have a great chance of going far in the competition, particularly since we are guaranteed two quarterfinals.
The Six Nations has come to an end and England’s record of 18 wins in a row was a terrific achievement. That included four wins over Australia, with three in a row Down Under, and a win over the Springboks, so there were top-quality sides beaten in that run.
The Six Nations is such a tribal tournament that all the games are hotly contested and nobody gave England an easy ride. Ireland probably feel the same way about the English as the Springboks do and they showed tremendous passion and fully deserved their win last weekend.
But England have now won two Six Nations titles on the trot, they’ve got the monkey off their back about the successive wins, and now they can get on with their World Cup preparation. The pool draw for the 2019 Rugby World Cup takes place in Kyoto, Japan, on 10 May, and with Argentina ranked ninth, there will be a pool of death with them in it. That pool will have three quality teams in it – Argentina, one of New Zealand, England, Australia or Ireland, and one of Scotland, France, Ireland or Wales, so everyone will want to avoid that pool.
There’s a pool of death in every World Cup, with hosts England losing out to Australia and Wales in 2015, Scotland failing to advance ahead of England and Argentina in 2011, and Ireland finishing below Argentina and France in 2007.
PS: Here’s another request to SuperSport to please schedule Friday night SuperRugby games – we’re again left with all the South African games crammed into Saturday!
John McFarland is the assistant coach of the Kubota Spears in Japan and was the Springbok defence coach from 2012 through to the 2015 World Cup, where they conceded the least line-breaks in the tournament and an average of just one try per game. Before that, McFarland won three SuperRugby titles (2007, 09, 10) with the Bulls and five Currie Cup crowns with the Blue Bulls. In all, he won 28 trophies during his 12 years at Loftus Versfeld.