I suppose it’s best to start this with the current burning issue. The Lions.
Let’s leave aside for one second the issue of who is slated to replace them. I personally couldn’t care less if the SWD Arende u/19s were the ones being touted as the Lions replacement. The fact is, the Lions have hardly helped their own cause this season.
Let’s even leave aside the last half a decade and more of woeful performances and focus on 2012. The Lions had a major point to prove this year, and had the momentum of a Currie Cup winning season to boost them. So what did they do? Three wins in 16 matches and a points difference of minus 130. Hell of a way to make Saru look the fool chaps. Add to that poor attendances, rumblings with former partners and a coaching crisis during the season and the best case you can make FOR the Lions is one AGAINST the Kings. A sad state of affairs for a once-proud and mighty union.
Of course what makes it worse for me is that there is a fresh case study on reviving faded fortunes just 50km up the N1. That said, players like Joshua Strauss, Elton Jantjies and Lionel Mapoe made a case for bigger unions picking up their services and utilising them going forward for a change.
This is written before the eliminator/playoff/extra round to make an unwieldy system work match against the Crusaders.
Hands up anyone who expected the Bulls to be anything but competent mid-carders this year? Quite frankly, the Bulls season has to be seen as a success regardless of the result in Christchurch. There’s losing five players in a squad of 30 then there is losing Gary Botha, Bakkies Botha, Fourie du Preez, Victor Matfield and the Daniesaurus. That the Bulls merely shifted from favourites to dark horse contenders is testament to the strength of rugby up in Tshwane and a massive credit for Heyneke Meyer and the house he built.
Players like Zane Kirchner, Mahlatse Ralepelle, Frans Hougaaard and yes, Pierre Spies have done an admirable job in stepping up and leading a new team out of the shadows of surely the greatest side ever assembled north of the Jukskei. The Bulls have an awesome blueprint and kudos to them for executing it even without leaders who had it practically ingrained in their DNA.
Well, the Cheetahs. Being the conceptual opposite of the Lions; small union in a small economically limited city with a small population and really decent rugby school, means expectations really should always be tempered around the Free Staters. Yet they are capable of producing such exhilarating rugby at times that you can’t help thinking of what could be possible with a little bit more investment, depth, and commercial success. Results will show that despite what they often hint at, the Cheetahs remain firm lower midtable quality and that’s unlikely to change. But my god they are the one team that’s always exciting to watch. Rain sodden matches against the Stormers aside, that is.
My dear beloved Sharks. Big team, big (relatively city), big stadium, massively successful commercial arm, big name players all across the paddock, and when it comes right, my God its impressive, as the Bulls found out the other week. This year threatened to be another one of stuttering what ifs with the boys playing more as talented soloists than a combined orchestra too many times for comfort, but when they clicked in the later stages of the tournament (thanks for the wake-up call, Lions) it was majestic to watch.
Making the play-offs means the season should be viewed as a success. Making the play-offs at the absolute last minute however, is barely good enough for a team with such talent in its ranks as Pat Lambie, Bismarck du Plessis, Willem Alberts, JP Pietersen and Marcell Coetzee. The continued improvement of the latter is surely the story of the season for the Sharks while Keegan Daniel is proving an able leader of the men in black and white. The Sharks patchy regular season form means they have it all to do if they are to break their Super drought and one would hope that next year they play to their full potential rather more consistently than they have thus far.
Played 16, won 14. Hard to argue against that hey?
Forget that the whitewash has been barely disturbed since the season began. What matters most is wins and the Cape faithful will only rue the quality of the fare served up to them if they once again fail to land the big trophy in three weeks’ time. Fact is, as much as we praise their team’s style, the Cheetahs faithful would love to have a boring team that wins so consistently. And that they did it with a new loose trio practically every week just makes it more impressive.
Such is their style that’s it hard to attribute the effort to individual players but Bryan Habana’s rebirth has been a sight to behold. Add in the energy of Siya Kolisi, Gio Aplon walking case study in guts and application, and while unspectacular, Peter Grant has been exactly the flyhalf his team needs. Of course the cynical among us would award Jacques Nienaber the player of the season award but the fact is, a game plan is only as effective as the guys out there on the field are willing to make it and blanket award is truly deserved here.
What ifs? Well any team that plays a nearly a whole season sans Schalk Burger deserves to moan about what-ifs to the end of time. That’s just a fact.
I back the Stormers to go all the way. Winning is a habit, and this team has shown can bring their A-Game in their sleep. And if that puts you to sleep, well, whatever.