Super Rugby 2017 Season Preview

As the 2017 Super Rugby season looms ahead of us like some unstoppable tsunami, I sit in the idyllic seaside village of Langebaan, my new home-town, and wonder about the rugby year ahead of us. Langebaan, on South Africa’s West Coast about 140km north of Cape Town is not always the best environment to think of serious stuff. The sea air is thick with oxygen and it is very easy to succumb to the Attack of the Nap Monster. I need a strong coffee to keep the Nap Monster at bay!

I fear that I will not need the salty-clean oxygen rich air of the seaside to beat insomnia later in the year. Super Rugby 2017 style is very likely to offer up sufficient soporific moments to provide for peaceful slumber.

Last year we had our first experience of the mega-monster Super Rugby competition foisted upon us by SANZAAR. The competition was expanded from the already cumbersome and somewhat boring Super 15 into a new Super 18 competition, with three additional teams joining the previous 15.

South Africa gained the politically well connected but not-so-Super Kings, the Japanese Sunwolves were transmogrified into an “African” team, joining the Argentinean Jaguares as one of the three new teams in the South African Conferences. A quick glance at the map of our world will tell you that they are an integral part of a conference that is as far as it is humanly possible to be from their home base in Tokyo. The logic of forcing them into an “African” conference escapes me.

Even the SANZAR name was expanded to SANZAAR, reflecting the inclusion of the South Americans. For some obscure reason the SANZAAR spin doctors could not find a way to add a “J” to reflect the Japanese involvement. SANZAJAR was considered just one bridge too far.

Perhaps the only amusing thing about the monstrously expanded competition was listening to New Zealand commentators trying to be politically correct and pronounce the Jaguares name in the original Spanish. It came out as a distorted phlegmy gargle that sounded nothing like a name or even vaguely Spanish. Jeff Wilson was particularly amusing as he even managed some facial distortion while gargling.

At the beginning of 2016 my Season Preview expressed my very serious reservations about the direction SANZAR had chosen to take Super Rugby, and that I could not pretend to support something that I considered to be seriously flawed. SANZAR had sold its soul and the future of rugby in the southern hemisphere in the pursuit of some misbegotten dream of “being a dominant force on the international stage.”

I pointed out in the article that the SANZAAR talk was all about “markets” and “strategic plans” and “new lucrative markets” while saying very little about the actual rugby on offer. Rugby was no longer the driving force of SANZAAR’s officialdom. Dreams of building an empire and a bureaucracy had captured the game.

A certain rugby administrator contacted me directly, and said that I was being much too harsh in my criticism of Super Rugby and suggested that we give the Super 18 competition a chance. He promised that it would develop into the world’s premier rugby competition.

I was somewhat astounded at his “promise”, and said so. Super Rugby would develop into the world’s premier rugby competition?? Super Rugby used to be the world’s premier rugby competition! The world’s premier rugby competition was the old Super 10, and even the expanded Super 12, before some greedy power hungry administrators decided to kill the goose that laid the golden eggs and expanded the competition to a Super 14, then 15, and then in 2016 to 18 teams.

The world’s premier rugby competition had lost its sparkle, it lost its intensity; innovation was replaced by survival tactics; the unique flavor of strength versus strength was sacrificed on the altar of filthy lucre. Far too many games of zero consequence and no impact on the competition. Far too many mediocre teams, and far too many players who should not be playing rugby at the very top levels. The Super 15 was evidence that the competition had become seriously bloated and inconsequential.

So they solved the problem and expanded it to a Super 18, and told us that it would become the world’s premier rugby competition.

Once the 2016 Super Rugby competition had run its dreary course, the SANZAAR officials gathered in the statistics, counted the beans, and slowly began to realise that their competition was not the “superior media product” they told us it was and would be.

Spectator numbers were down all over the world. Even Newlands, home to the Stormers and their most faithful of all rugby supporters, saw numbers dwindle from a regular 70% plus of stadium capacity, to an average of just 52%. No other team or stadium across the world managed to come anywhere close to 50% of capacity. Some were echoingly empty, sometimes less than a thousand paying spectators walked through the turnstiles for some of the Kings games!

A number of local school derbies drew larger crowds than did the world’s premier rugby competition. Australian crowds have dwindled alarmingly, accurately reflecting rugby’s status as the fourth or fifth most popular sport in that country. Even New Zealand, where rugby traditionally challenges religion for first place in the hearts of the people, has seen empty stadiums and sparse crowds, even for big local derby games.

Television viewership numbers were down in New Zealand, Australia, and even South Africa. The Japanese watched the first couple of games, and then returned to their regular watching patterns, which did not include rugby. I do not have the viewership figures for Argentina, but I would suggest that they were on the low side in that soccer crazy country.

Super Rugby 2016 style was an unmitigated disaster.

The sceptics were proven correct, and the spin doctors went into overdrive to try and repair the damage.

Several the Super Rugby franchises called for immediate changes, a host of media hacks added their voices to the chorus; most loudly of all, the long-suffering supporters begged for changes. Certain New Zealand franchises went public with their discontent, administrators and coaches publically slamming the competition format, playing and travelling schedules, and the stupidity of the “four conference” structure, with South Africa somehow having two automatic quarterfinal qualifiers, despite a team like the Stormers not having faced a single New Zealand outfit throughout the regular season. The whole competition had deteriorated into something bordering on ludicrous.

SANZAAR’s response? They hosted a “summit” and after much talk and some very good dinners and great wines they voted to appoint some hugely expensive management consultants to investigate Super Rugby and to come back some time in the future and tell us all what was wrong and how it should be fixed.

Why? Even the blindest most unthinking rugby supporter in the world can tell them what is wrong with their competition! Why bring in the “consultants” when the evidence is right before them?

In the meantime, they did nothing. Nothing at all.

Hence 2017 promises to be much the same as 2016.

During last year’s preview, I asked the following question, and I ask it again:

Whatever happened to the principle of Strength versus Strength breeds Strength????

Moving on…

The Super Rugby season looms. In just 3 weeks from now, on the 23rd of February the Rebels and the Blues will kick off the season with one of SANZAAR’s latest innovations, Thursday night rugby!

I am not sure of the logic behind this one. Anyone who attended club rugby matches in the mid-week and mid-winter evenings in the old Transvaal back in the bad old days of the 1980s will tell you that spectators simply stayed away. This was a time when club rugby on weekends drew large crowds. The response to midweek games was predictable. Too cold at night, in the middle of a working week, and too late in the day. Kids have go to school the next day and simply cannot be hauled off to watch rugby that will finish around 10pm and then require a commute back home before getting to bed. Mothers and wives stayed at home to do homey things. Husbands sat down with dinner, the TV, and newspapers. This was not rugby time.

Games were played to a core of spectators that consisted of team management and coaches, and a couple of long suffering girlfriends. Even stray dogs stayed away.  It was the Dr Louis Luyt’s decision to schedule club rugby in the midweek as it was competing with provincial games for spectators. The decision was a failure on every front.

Super Rugby games on a Thursday night face similar challenges.

I gloomily predict another SANZAAR match scheduling disaster.

Friday the 24th February sees two more games, and then Saturday the 25th provides for six more games.

That is nine Super Rugby games in three days, and one already gets the feeling that too much rugby is on offer, which is sure to exacerbate the already dampened enthusiasm.

Before we move on to look at the 18 different franchises and their squads and prospects for 2017, let’s dwell for a moment on a couple of player highlights from 2016 and look at some of the law changes that will impact on our game this year, make a couple of predictions too..

The Rising Stars of 2016.

2016 certainly provided us with some glimpses of new talent and fresh ideas.

Over in New Zealand young Damian McKenzie (21 years old) of the Chiefs was the find of the season. I want to say “I told you so!” after I raved about his talent when he debuted in 2015. In 2016 he was a breath of fresh air. Rather, he was a full-blown gale of fresh air! Fearless, enterprising, and excitingly adventurous, he is what rugby is all about. He produced steps and dummies, ball skills and guile aplenty. That grin as he placed the ball on the tee and then imagined his kick sailing over the crossbar was worth the price of an entrance ticket.

McKenzie topped the competition statistics for carries (215), clean breaks (31), defenders beaten (67) and metres made (1304) and fully deserved his All Black debut at the end of the year. If he carries on in 2017 the way he grew during 2016, New Zealand have an exceptional replacement for Ben Smith and Israel Dagg in the 15 jersey.

Anton Lienert-Brown, also of the Chiefs, is another extremely exciting youngster. Also just 21, he rapidly made his mark in 2016 and was also rewarded with an All Black call-up by the end of the year. He offers the All Blacks some versatility with his ability to play 12 or 13. His balanced running, penetration, and distribution make him one to watch in 2017.

Rieko Ioane of the Blues is just 19 years old and showed that he was another raw talent off that backline conveyor belt in the Land of the Long White Cloud. Another centre with plenty of enterprise and excitement, and he adds a bonus of also being able to play out wide on the wing.

Australians are mighty pleased with the emergence of 22-year-old Reece Hodge of the Rebels. He can play at 10, in the midfield, or on the wing and possesses the bulk and muscularity of the modern crashball running centre favoured by Aussie coach Michael Cheika. A prodigious boot adds to his value.

After many many voices calling for his inclusion in the Bok side, Rohan Janse van Rensburg of the Lions was finally given his green and gold jersey. He had a great year for the Lions, but seemed a little overwhelmed and one dimensional when he started for the Boks. Perhaps this was more a Bok coaching and game plan issue than a true reflection of the 22-year old’s worth? We will watch his progress in 2017.

The injury woes affecting the six or seven loose forwards ahead of Uzair Cassiem in the queue for Bok colours gave the big man from the Cheetahs his chance, and he took it with both enormous hands. At 26 years old he is no spring chicken, but his first year of Super Rugby showed his credentials as an all field workhorse with an uncompromising style.

The hunt for a replacement for Adriaan Strauss and Bismarck du Plessis launched the career of young Malcolm Marx of the Lions. A huge man, with pace aplenty and an abundance of raw skills, he has the look of a giant of the future. He needs some work on his lineout throwing, but the rest of his game was as good as it gets. South Africa must nurture this talent!

Over in the Cheetahs camp, a young prop made an impressive mark. Ox Nche started the season as an impact sub off the bench, but rapidly gained the nod as a starting prop. Great scrumming skills, and powerful ball carrying, he needs to learn to pass and offload in contact, but he has a bright future if he can build on 2016

My final standout performer of 2016 was Facundo Isa of the Jaguares. Uncompromising, in-your-face, and everywhere on the field. The first line of defence for the Jaguares, and often the last line too. His ball carrying was impressive, his driving play and his mauling was amongst the best. He is only 23 years old! Watch this man closely..

Law Changes

Whilst there has been a lot of talk about tinkering with the laws around the rucks and mauls, absolutely nothing has been done to sort out that bugger’s muddle. They told us that they would change the offside line and give scrumhalves a little more space and time to create running rugby opportunities. They told us that they would get rid of the offside line running through the last player’s feet and run the line through the ball again.

But, somewhat predictably, they did nothing of the sort.

There has, however, been a lot of unnecessary meddling with the minutiae of when a ball is in touch or not and where a captain may elect to take a penalty, but nothing to address the problems that make rugby one of the most complicated sporting events of them all. Perhaps the most significant challenge facings refs and players will be the implementation of two new categories of dangerous tackles that carry penalty offences to deter and eradicate high tackles. Introduced on the 3rd January, 2017, these two changes have already caused an uproar in norther hemispherean rugby circles as the first two weeks after implementation saw a flurry of red cards and a host of yellows for tackles that would previously not even drawn a penalty.

Once again officialdom has meddled, and the meddling is causing serious problems.

The first is the Reckless Tackle.

Reckless tackle

A player is deemed to have made reckless contact during a tackle or attempted tackle or during other phases of the game if in making contact, the player knew or should have known that there was a risk of making contact with the head of an opponent, but did so anyway. This sanction applies even if the tackle starts below the line of the shoulders. This type of contact also applies to grabbing and rolling or twisting around the head/neck area even if the contact starts below the line of the shoulders.

Minimum sanction: Yellow card

Maximum sanction: Red card

I understand the application of the Reckless Tackle law, and accept the importance of protecting players in moments such as envisaged by this law.

I have a lot of difficulty with the second new law.

Accidental tackle

When making contact with another player during a tackle or attempted tackle or during other phases of the game, if a player makes accidental contact with an opponent’s head, either directly or where the contact starts below the line of the shoulders, the player may still be sanctioned. This includes situations where the ball-carrier slips into the tackle.

Minimum sanction: Yellow card

Maximum sanction: Red card

I cannot for the life of me understand the thinking that suggests a red card for an obvious accident. This has happened already in both England and France during the last two weeks. It is inexplicable! If the ball carrier slips into the tackle, how on earth can you red card the tackler? There was no intent, no foreseeability, and no possible way of preventing the accident unless we are going to start playing touch rugby!

I would suggest it is yet another example of administrative overkill.

Other Law Changes:

Law Three: Number of Players – The Team

Law 3.4: Players Nominated as substitutes.

Law 3.4.d) has been changed to allow for three front row player substitutes and up to five other players. Previously this law only allowed for two front row substitutes.

Law 3.6: Uncontested Scrums sees a Trial Law Amendment that calls for uncontested scrums following a suspension or sending off to have at least 8 players in each team’s scrum. This effectively reduces the number of backs if a forward gets sent off and uncontested scrums result from the sending off.

I like this one! For a long time a team who had a prop forward or hooker sent off suffered no discernible punishment when the referee called uncontested scrums. Often they simply pulled off their remaining props and sent on reserve loose-forward substitutes to “play” in the front row and add some mobility and ball carrying skills to compensate for the loss of a miscreant player.

Law 3.12 Governing replacements for Head Injury Assessments finds the original 3.12. c) scrapped in it’s entirety.

This sub-clause used to prohibit temporary replacements from taking penalty kicks at goal. This was a little senseless as the replaced player might have been the team’s only goal kicker. From 2017 onwards replacements may take penalty attempts at goal.

Law 8, governing Advantage during play has seen the addition of a Law Amendment Trial. Law 8.1 allows the captain of the non-offending team to choose the most advantageous penalty mark if a series or multiple of penalisable offences occurred during an unbroken phase of play.

(I like it. No real change here as referees have, in practice, been offering captains the option for some years.)

Law 9A.1, Sees a trial of a Law Amendment that automatically gives a 7 point value to a penalty try. There is no need for a conversion kick any more.

Law 19, governing Touch and The Lineout sees several Law Amendment Trials that somewhat complicate matters.

The first concerns when a ball is kicked into touch but caught by an opponent before the ball touches the ground. The Trial Law says:

“In this case, if the ball has reached the plane of touch when it is caught, then the catcher is not deemed to have taken the ball into touch. If the ball has not reached the plane of touch when it is caught or picked up, then the catcher is deemed to have taken the ball into touch, regardless of whether the ball was in motion or stationary.”

The second trial amendment says:

“If a player jumps from the playing area and knocks the ball back into the playing area (or if that player catches the ball and throws it back into the playing area) before landing in touch or touch-in-goal, play continues regardless of whether the ball reaches the plane of touch.”

The third deals with any player attempting to bring a ball under control:

“A player who is attempting to bring the ball under control is deemed to be in possession of the ball.”

The fourth deals with a ball that bananas into touch and back into play:

“If the ball-carrier reaches the plane of touch but returns the ball to the playing area without first landing in touch, play continues.”

In my view this is all unnecessary tinkering that just serves to make complicated laws even more complicated.

Law 20, the Scrum.

Interestingly, Law 20.3 sees the deletion of sub-clause h) which used to read:

(h)  Scrum collapse. If a scrum collapses, the referee must blow the whistle immediately so that players stop pushing.

The referee can and should allow the scrum to continue to its logical conclusion if a team has gained control of the ball. We will also see far fewer of those stupefying scrum resets.

Finally, for this first part of my 2017 season preview, and before we move on to examining each franchise and their squads, let’s make some predictions for the season that is about to start.

I think we can predict that the New Zealand franchises will again dominate Super Rugby.

Last year four of the five NZ based sides made it into the playoffs, despite having to play each other more than is vaguely fair.  The South African Lions might have a chance at a final berth again, but I cannot see any of the Australian outfits and any of the other South African teams making it that far.

The only outsider is the Argentinean Jaguares. They played in the basement last year, but their squad contains so many current internationals and so much class that it would be a brave man that discounts their challenge in 2017.

Will the Bulls build on their Currie Cup form and mount a challenge this year? In the past they have talked the talk, but miserably failed to walk when walking was needed. They have a squad loaded with talented youngsters, but are they brave enough to finally abandon their archaic crashball style of playing?

The Sharks have long promised everyone that “this is their year” and then failed to turn up for critical games. Will 2017 be another year of empty promises? Perhaps Robert du Preez will change them from playing painfully predictable Jakeball.

Some players to watch:

I have already mentioned the likes of Damian McKenzie, Facundo Isa and Rohan Janse van Rensburg while talking about the star-bursts of 2016. But there are some other names that will be worth keeping your eye on.

Nehe Milner-Skudder. I have long maintained that his name “Nehe” is a derivative of the noise a despairing tackler makes as he hits the ground after missing Milner-Skudder and tackling his shadow. It is usually accompanied by a pained expression and grunting noises as the player attempts to recover from his involuntary winding.

We missed his sublime running during 2016. He has recovered from his season ending injuries, and I hope we see his sidestep back at it’s very best in 2017.

Warren Whiteley is an inspirational captain, perhaps just the man to take over the role from Adriaan Strauss in the Bok team. BUT he has to prove that he has no peer in the Number 8 slot before he can be considered as a permanent captain.

Beauden Barrett, 2016 saw him rise above all other fly halves in world rugby, in 2017 he could cement that status! Especially with the news that Aaron Cruden has succumbed to a multimillion dollar deal with Montpellier!

Jordie Barrett has joined the Canes to understudy his elder brother. He had a superlative season with the All Black U/20 squad and could be on the verge of big things.

Warrick Gelant Will this exciting youngster start to produce consistent performances in 2017. He has the chance to write his name into the Bok 15 jersey as the coach’s first choice now that Willie le Roux seems to have fallen out of favour with Mr Coetzee. Gelant needs to stay fit though, he has been very injury prone.

Sonny Bill Williams is back, this time with the Blues. If he can get the magic ging, he is always worth the price of a ticket. 

There are lots of other youngsters coming through, and my list could go on and on, but I will stop with those I have mentioned above. I am sure that you, dear reader, will have a short list of your own.

My next contribution will start looking at the teams and their squads.

Have a great 2017!

Bill van Zyl 1 February 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Super Rugby Preview 2017

 

Part Two

 

The Refs and The Teams.

 

After a road trip to the sweltering Eastern Cape to drop off a family member returning to university and visiting another who stays as far away from mini-bus taxis and traffic lights as she possibly can, eschewing the bright lights for the bush and the world of a game ranger and the Big Five, we are back in the relative quite civilisation of Langebaan.

 

Time for the next part of my preview of the 2017 Super Rugby season, just two weeks away. This section of the Preview will deal with the Referees and the New Zealand Conference teams.

 

The Referees.

 

Let me start with the single most maligned group of people on the planet, the referees.

 

I must begin my discussion with a reiteration of the elephant in the room.

 

Rugby is a professional sport, yet most the referees are part-timers. Surely, a professional sport deserves a corps of full-time professional referees.

 

If an ordinary working man constantly makes mistakes at work, he is subject to disciplinary proceedings, remedial measures, and the possibility of losing his job, or even finding himself parked in some menial position where he can do little or no damage to his employer’s business. There are consequences for his failures.

 

Not so for a part-time referee who holds down a regular job outside the game in which he officiates. If he loses his refereeing job? Well, that’s just too bad, we will head into the office on Monday and draw a salary cheque at the end of the month. If we look at the panel of referees listed to officiate in Super Rugby 2017, we find school teachers, an airline pilot, lawyers, pharmacists, advocates, corporate administrators, fitness instructors and just a couple of full time referees.

 

Whilst not suggesting that Jaco Peyper is a poor referee, he is one of the top three in the world today, he is a practicing lawyer and has a life outside rugby. If he were to be fired from the panel of referees it have little or no effect on his long term prospects.

 

Not that the administrators of the various rugby referee associations have ever fired a referee for incompetence, and SANZAAR have certainly shown that they will not rock this boat either. If they were true to their promise of raising the level of the game, including the officials, why on earth is Australian Rohan Hoffmann still on the panel? His sheer incompetence and undoubted bias towards Australian teams during the last number of seasons has earned him the opprobrium of players, fans, and the media across the competition, he has been “suspended” for incompetent performances, and left off the panel from time to time, yet he is still there!

 

There is a solution! Make refereeing a profession. Provide them with a future in the game, with all the benefits of a retirement or pension fund, medical aid, group life and other similar “corporate” employee benefits.

 

Recruit and train kids straight out of school. Allocate the trainee to a senior referee for job shadowing experience, allocate them to clubs and schools to go and learn the basics of the game itself, let them referee practice runs, and build them through the ranks until they reach test match status. Make it a career!

 

Professional Rugby is a huge business with enormous amounts of money involved. Surely a small slice of the money pie should go to ensuring that the sport has the best possible corps of officials?

 

SANZAAR have a 19-man squad of referees for the 2017 Super Rugby season.

 

There is one new face, former Blitzbok and Stormers wing Egon Seconds.

 

The Super Rugby referee squad consists of seven New Zealanders, six South Africans, four Australians, one from Japan and one from Argentina.

 

I like the fact that there are four former Super Rugby players in the squad: Glen Jackson, Nic Berry, Jamie Nutbrown and Egon Seconds. It would be great of more ex-players followed in their footsteps!

 

The Squad:

 

Federico Anselmi (Argentina), Nic Berry (Australia), Nick Briant (New Zealand), Mike Fraser (New Zealand), Angus Gardner (Australia), Rohan Hoffmann (Australia), Will Houston (Australia), Quinton Immelman (South Africa), Glen Jackson (New Zealand), Shuhei Kubo (Japan), Jamie Nutbrown (New Zealand), Ben O’Keeffe (New Zealand), Jaco Peyper (South Africa), Brendon Pickerill (New Zealand), Rasta Rasivhenge (South Africa), Egon Seconds (South Africa), Marius van der Westhuizen (South Africa), Jaco van Heerden (South Africa), Paul Williams (New Zealand)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Team Previews:

 

Part One: The New Zealand Conference:

 

The New Zealand Conference was far and away the strongest of the four conferences in the 2016 season. At the end of the regular season four of the five NZ franchises had accumulated in excess of 50 points, just two of the franchises outside New Zealand achieved the same goal, the Lions and the Stormers from South Africa, and the Stormers did so without facing any of the big guns in the competition.

 

The Hurricanes topped the log with 53 points, the Lions and the Highlanders were joint second on 52 points, followed by the Stormers and the Chiefs on 51, and then the Crusaders on 50.

 

Next best were the Sharks and the Brumbies on 43.

 

This week I will not be debating the merits (there are so very few) and the demerits (so many) of the Super Rugby conference system and the allocation of home ground advantage during playoffs, or the strange fixture lists that allow a team from one conference to accumulate 51 points and a home quarterfinal without actually facing any of the New Zealand based teams.

 

It is glaringly obvious that the New Zealand franchises produced the best rugby of the entire competition, with just one outsider, the Lions, joining their ranks in consistently producing quality rugby.

 

And 2017 is likely to be more of the same.

 

Perhaps there will be a stronger challenge from one or two more teams outside of New Zealand, but we are likely to see the five New Zealand franchises battling for playoff slots right through to the final weekend of the regular season.

 

 

New Zealand Franchises

 

 

The Blues

When I sat down to write my preview of the 2016 season, I mentioned that the Blues would rather not talk about the 2015 season, or any other season dating back to 2012. Their run under coach Sir John Kirwan had been close to disastrous, and they had finally fired him and appointed Tana Umaga as their new coach and potential savior.

I also suggested that they would be a team in transition and that they could not have too much expectation of glory in 2016. I suggested a bottom-half of the log season lay ahead.

They certainly proved me wrong in many respects, winning eight out of their fifteen matches, their best run in five years.

Yes, they finished at the bottom of the New Zealand conference log, but that was no disgrace! Yes, they finished 11th on the overall log, but again, no disgrace! This was a team in transition, and they certainly laid some solid foundations to build on in 2017.

If we take a closer look at their performances in 2016 we see that they lost six games, five of them against their New Zealand compatriots. They won just 1 game against a New Zealand team, but that means that they won 7 games against non-New Zealand teams (and drew 1) – If we look at it from another angle, they lost just one game outside the New Zealand conference! They beat both the Brumbies and the Waratahs on their way to a huge improvement over 2015 when they won just 3 games.

There is a quiet confidence in Auckland as they prepare for 2017. They want to build on 2016 and challenge for a playoff spot again.

The Blues have suffered the usual Southern Hemispherean player drain to the north. Players who have left for the Euro, the Pound, or the Yen are: Quentin MacDonald (Oyonnax), Josh Bekhuis (Lyon), Tanerau Latimer (Bayonne), Male Sa’u (Yamaha Júbilo), and Nic Mayhew who has only jumped slightly north for some Australian Dollars and the Brumbies.

Others who have left the Blues include three that have shifted to other New Zealand Super teams: Bryn Hall (Crusaders), Ben Lam (Hurricanes), and the promising Tevita Li (Highlanders)

They have also lost several squad members who have returned to provincial or club rugby: Namatahi Waa (Northland), Hoani Matenga (Wellington), Joe Edwards (Auckland), Jack Ram (Northland), Matt McGahan (North Harbour), Afa Fa’atau (North Harbour), Michael Little (North Harbour), Lolagi Visinia (Auckland)

Whilst the Blues have lost a number of players, they have also been able to replace them with some high-quality recruits, none more so that Sonny Bill Williams, who was signed from the Chiefs. Two other Chiefs have turned Blue, being Augustine Pulu, and Pauliasi Manu. Jimmy Tupou and Alex Hodgman have also joined from the Crusaders.

Other new signings are: Josh Goodhue (Northland), Epalahame Faiva (Waikato), Brandon Nansen (North Harbour), Murphy Taramai (North Harbour), Michael Collins (Welsh Scarlets and Otago), Declan O’Donnell (Taranaki), Stephen Perofeta (Taranaki)

The entire Blues squad is:

Backs: Michael Collins, Matt Duffie, TJ Faiane, Billy Guyton, Rieko Ioane, Matt Vaega, George Moala, Melani Nanai, Sam Nock, Declan O’Donnell, Stephen Perofeta, Augustine Pulu, Rene Ranger, Jordon Trainor, Ihaia West, Sonny Bill Williams, Piers Francis.

Forwards: Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, Epalahame Faiva, Charlie Faumuina, Blake Gibson, Josh Goodhue, Alex Hodgman, Akira Ioane, Jerome Kaino, Steven Luatua, Sione Mafileo, Pauliasi Manu, Matt Moulds, Brandon Nansen, James Parsons, Sam Prattley, Kara Pryor, Scott Scrafton, Murphy Taramai, Patrick Tuipulotu, Jimmy Tupou, Ofa Tu’ungafasi.

This is a very well balanced squad with some outstanding players in the ranks. A sprinkling of seasoned All Blacks such as Charlie Faumuina, Ofa Tu’ungafasi, Patrick Tuipulotu, Jerome Kaino. Sonny Bill Williams, Rene Ranger, and Steven Luatua provides for plenty of experience and spine to a team that also contains some exciting youngsters..

Interesting too that there are no less than 15 Samoans in the squad!

Prospects for 2017: This is a squad that surprised a lot of pundits in 2016. They could easily go all the way in 2017.

I would suggest a playoff slot is a strong possibility.

Fixtures

Thursday, February 23 v Rebels (AAMI Park, Melbourne)
Friday, March 3 v Chiefs (FMG Stadium, Waikato)
Saturday, March 11 v Highlanders (Eden Park, Auckland)
Friday, March 17 v Crusaders (AMI Stadium, Christchurch)
Saturday, March 25 v Bulls (QBE Stadium, Auckland)
Saturday, April 1 v Force (Eden Park, Auckland)
Saturday, April 8 v Highlanders (Forsyth Barr, Dunedin)
Saturday, April 15 v Hurricanes (Eden Park, Auckland)
Round 9: BYE
Sunday, April 30 v Brumbies (GIO Stadium, Canberra)
Saturday, May 6 v Waratahs (Allianz Stadium, Sydney)
Friday, May 12 v Cheetahs (Eden Park, Auckland)
Friday, May 19 v Stormers (Newlands, Cape Town)
Friday, May 26 v Chiefs (Eden Park, Auckland)
Friday, June 2 v Reds (Apia Park, Samoa)
Round 16: BYE
Saturday, July 15 v Sunwolves (Chichibunomiya Rugby Stadium, Tokyo)

 

 

 

The Chiefs

The Chiefs made much of the running in the early months of Super Rugby 2016, and it was a lot of running rugby too. 11 wins and four losses, including a thumping 60 to 21 win over the Stormers in the quarterfinal playoffs before they ran out of steam against the Canes in the semi-final a week later, after an arduous late season on the road.

Dave Rennie’s outfit has always been one of the more spectacular running teams in world rugby, with a special talent for off-loads and sleight of hand passing. They have also been Super Rugby front runners for the last number of years. 2017 is Rennie’s last season with the Chiefs before he before he moves northwards to Glasgow, and he will want to leave New Zealand with another trophy on his CV, so we can expect the Chiefs to be one of the pace-setters yet again.

If they maintain their try scoring style in the new season they may well beat the 68 they scored in the regular season before racking up an additional 8 against the Stormers in the playoffs!

The roster of Southern Hemispherean players heading up north includes a number of Chiefs: Hiroshi Yamashita (Kobe Steel Kobelco Steelers), Rhys Marshall (Munster), Johan Bardoul (Yamaha Júbilo), Ma’ama Vaipulu (Castres), and Andrew Horrell (Coca-Cola Red Sparks)

The Chiefs have also lost six stalwarts to poaching by other New Zealand Super franchises: Pauliasi Manu (Blues), Kayne Hammington (Highlanders), Siate Tokolahi (Highlanders), Augustine Pulu (Blues), Seta Tamanivalu (Crusaders), and Sonny Bill Williams (Blues).

Four more players are headed back to provincial or club rugby. Sam Henwood (Counties Manukau), Tevita Koloamatangi (Tasman), Sam Vaka (Counties Manukau), and Latu Vaeno (Taranaki).

Losing fifteen of their squad could hurt the Chiefs badly, although they have recruited some fair replacements.

Players In: Sefo Kautai (Waikato), Liam Polwart (Bay of Plenty), Finlay Christie (Tasman), Solomon Alaimalo (Northland), Johnny Fa’auli (Taranaki), and the big name of Tim Nanai-Williams (Ricoh Black Rams) is back.

Despite losing fifteen of their squad, this Chiefs outfit is still loaded with talent. Aaron Cruden has been an outstanding playmaker and leader and will be looking to make an impact in his final season before taking up an enormous contract with Montpellier in France.  Anton Lienert-Brown will want to show that he has a long career ahead in an All Black jersey.

Damian McKenzie can only get better after a superlative 2016, and the return on Nanai-Williams adds striking power to the midfield. When Charlie Ngatai is over his concussion problems he will add yet another midfield option.

Amongst the forwards Sam Cane, Brodie Retallick, Tom Sanders and Taleni Seu remain a force to be reckoned with

The Chiefs Squad:

Forwards: Props: Nepo Laulala, Atu Moli, Siegfried Fisi’ihoi, Mitchell Graham, Kane Hames, Sosefo Kautai, Hookers: Hika Elliot, Nathan Harris, Liam Polwart, Locks: Brodie Retallick, Dominic Bird, Michael Allardice, James Tucker. Loose Forwards: Taleni Seu, Liam Messam, Mitchell Brown, Sam Cane, Mitchell Karpik, Lachlan Boshier, Tom Sanders, Michael Leitch.

 

Backs: Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Brad Weber, Finlay Christie, Aaron Cruden, Stephen Donald, Damian McKenzie, Charlie Ngatai, Anton Lienert-Brown, Johnny Fa’auli, Tim Nanai-Williams, Solomon Alaimalo (

Sam McNicol, James Lowe, Chase Tiatia, Toni Pulu, Glen Fisiiahi, Shaun Stevenson.

 

Prospects for 2017: If you are a betting man, a couple of your hard-earned bucks should go on the Chiefs. This is an outfit that has the depth and the skill sets to run anyone ragged. They could easily go all the way to the trophy. If nothing else they will be one of the most entertaining teams in the competition.

 

Fixtures:

 

Friday, February 24 v Highlanders (Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin)
Friday, March 3 v Blues (FMG Stadium, Hamilton)
Friday, March 10 v Hurricanes (FMG Stadium, Hamilton)
Friday, March 17 v Rebels (AAMI Park, Melbourne)
Round 5: BYE
Saturday, April 1 v Bulls (FMG Stadium, Hamilton)
Saturday, April 8 v Stormers (Newlands, Cape Town)
Saturday, April 15 v Cheetahs (Toyota Stadium, Bloemfontein)
Saturday, April 22 v Force (nib Stadium, Perth)
Saturday, April 29 v Sunwolves (FMG Stadium, Hamilton)
Saturday, May 6 v Reds (Yarrow Stadium, New Plymouth)
Round 12: BYE
Friday, May 19 v Crusaders (ANZ National Stadium, Suva)
Friday, May 26 v Blues (Eden Park, Auckland)
Saturday, June 3 v Waratahs (FMG Stadium, Hamilton)
Friday, June 9 v Hurricanes (Westpac Stadium, Wellington)
Saturday, July 15 v Brumbies (FMG Stadium, Hamilton)

 

 

The Crusaders.

 

It is all change at the Crusaders. Iconic player and then coach Todd Blackadder is now with Bath, and Scott Robertson takes over as head coach. He has some sizeable boots to fill, but he has been there before!

2016 saw the ‘Saders rebuilding after the loss of Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, Colin Slade and Tom Taylor. Some thought they would struggle after losing the hard core of their leadership and playmakers. Not really. They still won 11 of the 15 regular season fixtures and headed into the playoffs, again.

Richie Mo’unga stepped into Dan Carter’s flyhalf slot without undue wobbles and showed he has a long-term future at AMI Stadium as their link man. Mitch Drummond and Scott Barrett showed they have the class to make it at the top level. Nemani Nadolo crashed and bashed his way through uncountable opponents, although he did have some minor disciplinary problems with his penchant for tip-tackles!

And then there was the return of Israel Dagg. A return from injury and a return to form that made him one of 2016’s star performers, both for the Crusaders and for the All Blacks.

2017 again sees several changes in their player resources.

The lure of Northern Hemispherean currency was strong. Perhaps the biggest loss is Nemani Nadolo who has headed north to play his rugby for Montpellier in France. Another big loss is Robbie Fruean who has also gone north to Bath, while Kieron Fonotia has joined Ospreys and Johnny McNicholl is in Wales with the Scarlets. The final north-bound player is Andy Ellis who has gone to Kobe Steel Kobelco Steelers in Japan.

Three players have moved to other New Zealand based franchises; Alex Hodgman (Blues), Jimmy Tupou (Blues), and Reed Prinsep (Hurricanes), while Ben Volavola has skipped across the ditched to Australia and the Rebels.

Tim Boys has gone back to provincial rugby with Southland, while Ged Robinson has retired.

New recruits are: Bryn Hall from the Blues, Tim Bateman from Coca-Cola Red Sparks, and Seta Tamanivalu of the Chiefs. Digby Ioane returns from the Japanese Honda Heat.

Local recruits are: Oliver Jager (Canterbury), Andrew Makalio (Tasman), Quinten Strange (Tasman), Heiden Bedwell-Curtis (Manawatu), George Bridge (Canterbury), Manasa Mataele (Taranaki)

Once again the Crusaders will need to rebuild and regroup a little, a new coach and a number of big names that have gone will hurt a bit. But their squad is still loaded with talent. Their props, hookers and locks are all top of the range while a back row of Taufua, Matt Todd and Kieran Read is up there with the best in Super Rugby.

Crusaders Squad:

Forwards: Michael Alaalatoa, Wyatt Crockett, Oliver Jager, Joe Moody, Tim Perry, Owen Franks, Ben Funnell, Andrew Makalio, Codie Taylor, Scott Barrett, Luke Romano, Quinten Strange, Sam Whitelock, Heiden Bedwell-Curtis, Jed Brown, Mitchell Dunshea, Kieran Read, Pete Samu, Jordan Taufua, Matt Todd.

Backs: Mitchell Drummond, Leon Fukofuka, Bryn Hall, Tim Bateman, Marty McKenzie, Richie Mo’unga, Ryan Crotty, Jack Goodhue, David Havili, Seta Tamanivalu, Sean Wainui, George Bridge, Israel Dagg, Sione Fifita, Mitchell Hunt, Digby Ioane, Jone Macilai, Manasa Mataele.

 

Prospects for 2017: A lot will rest on the form of fly-half Richie Mo’unga and number eight Kieran Read while centre Ryan Crotty is also a key player in their leadership group. The strange Super Rugby format makes it difficult for the Saders as they must fight the rest of the New Zealand franchises for the one home playoff slot available to them. They might have to settle for another travelling playoff.

 

I do see them making it to the playoffs, perhaps even going all the way, but it will be difficult.

 

Fixtures:

Saturday, February 25 v Brumbies (AMI Stadium, Christchurch)
Saturday, March 4 v Highlanders (Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin)
Saturday, March 11 v Reds (Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane)
Friday, March 17 v Blues (AMI Stadium, Christchurch)
Friday, March 24 v Force (AMI Stadium, Christchurch)
Sunday, April 2 v Waratahs (Allianz Stadium, Sydney)
Round 7: BYE
Friday, April 14 v Sunwolves (AMI Stadium, Christchurch)
Saturday, April 22 v Stormers (AMI Stadium, Christchurch)
Saturday, April 29 v Cheetahs (Toyota Stadium, Bloemfontein)
Saturday, May 6 v Bulls (Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria)
Saturday, May 13 v Hurricanes (AMI Stadium, Christchurch)
Friday, May 19 v Chiefs (ANZ National Stadium, Suva)
Saturday, May 27 v Rebels (AAMI Park, Melbourne)
Saturday, June 3 v Highlanders (AMI Stadium, Christchurch)
Round 16: BYE
Saturday, July 15 v Hurricanes (Westpac Stadium)

 

 

The Highlanders.

 

Joining the Crusaders with a coaching change, the Highlanders said good bye to Jamie Joseph and welcomed Tony Brown into the head coach’s chair for 2017. He has a huge legacy to build on! Champions in 2015, semi-finalists last year, and a squad of players that has remained essentially unchanged in the off-season makes everyone’s favourite “other” New Zealand team a force to be reckoned with as the new season approaches.

 

Do not expect to see too many changes to the Highlanders approach to rugby, Tony Brown is no stranger to the Highlanders systems and style, he has been Jamie Joseph’s assistant since 2013.

They too have lost a couple of players to the lure of the Euro/Pound/Yen, but have fortunately retained most of their first-choice players for 2017.

Those who have left New Zealand are: Josh Hohneck (Gloucester), Mark Reddish (Harlequins), Ryan Tongia (Bayonne), Jack Wilson (Bath), and Fumiaki Tanaka (Sunwolves) are those who have left New Zealand, while Ross Geldenhuys has (inexplicably) signed for South Africa’s Kings.

Brendon Edmonds is out for the season with injury, while Jamie Booth (Manawatu), and Te Aihe Toma (Bay of Plenty) return to provincial and club rugby.

New Recruits are Guy Millar from the Force, Siate Tokolahi and Kane Hammington from the Chiefs, the exciting Tevita Li from the Blues and Josh Dickson from Otago.

The changes to the squad and to the coaching set-up are minor and we can expect the Highlanders to continue to play their free-flowing style with plenty of counter-attacking from the deep by their strike force of Ben Smith, Waisake Naholo, Patrick Osborne and new recruit Tevita Li.

The midfield also looks a lot stronger with the return of Richard Buckman from a season long injury break.

Highlanders Squad

Forwards: Siosiua Halanukonuka, Daniel Lienert-Brown, Craig Millar, Guy Millar, Greg Pleasants-Tate, Aki Seiuli, Siate Tokolahi, Liam Coltman, Ash Dixon, Alex Ainley, Josh Dickson, Tom Franklin, Jackson Hemopo, Joe Wheeler, Shane Christie, Elliot Dixon, Gareth Evans, James Lentjes, Dan Pryor, Liam Squire, Luke Whitelock.

Backs:  Josh Renton, Aaron Smith, Kayne Hammington, Hayden Parker, Fletcher Smith, Lima Sopoaga, Richard Buckman, Jason Emery, Matt Faddes, Malakai Fekitoa, Rob Thompson, Patelesio Tomkinson, Teihorangi Walden, Tevita Li, Waisake Naholo, Patrick Osborne, Ben Smith.

After their maiden Super Rugby trophy in 2015, the Highlanders were right in the middle of the bullseye of every team’s target for 2016. They did themselves proud again, another team to register 11 wins in the 15-match regular season, losing just four. (One loss was a complete aberration against the lowly Reds!) They eventually had to bend the knee to a hyped-up Lions outfit in the semi-final, at altitude in Johannesburg, but it was still a very good season for the men from Otago. Second in the New Zealand Conference – behind the Hurricanes – and one of the wildcard berths for the quarter-finals.

 

Prospects for 2017: The New Zealand Conference will be ultra-competitive again, and the Highlanders will, again, be one of the top teams to watch. Their fixture list is a bit nasty in the late season with four out of six games being away from home. This could make life a little difficult.

The news that Aaron Cruden is heading to France will light a fire under Lima Sopoaga. He will want to pencil his name in next to Beauden Barrett’s as an automatic flyhalf choice for any All Black squad.

There’s plenty of talent and experience in this Highlander outfit, and I see them in the playoffs again in 2017.

Fixtures

Friday, 24 February v Chiefs (Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin)
Saturday, 4 March v Crusaders (Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin)
Saturday, 11 March v Blues (tbc)
Saturday, 18 March v Hurricanes (tbc)
Saturday, 25 March v Brumbies (GIO Stadium, Canberra)
Friday, 31 March v Rebels (Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin)
Saturday, 8 April v Blues (Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin)
Round 8: BYE
Saturday, 22 April v Sunwolves (Rugby Park, Invercargill)
Friday, 28 April v Stormers (Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin)
Friday, 5 May v Cheetahs (Free State Stadium, Bloemfontein)
Saturday, 13 May v Bulls (Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria)
Saturday, 20 May v Force (nib Stadium, Perth)
Saturday, 27 May v Waratahs (Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin)
Saturday, 31 June v Crusaders (AMI Stadium, Christchurch)
Round 16: BYE
Friday, 14 July v Reds (Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin)

 

 

The Hurricanes

 

2016 looked to be the Hurricanes year, but….

 

In 2017 they were not going to be denied! Yet, they started badly, with two straight losses and accusations of an unfit and disinterested and arrogant squad that thought their reputations would win them games. Julian Savea was even called “fat” by some commentators!

After their poor start the ‘Canes found their feet, although there were still wobbly moments in the next couple of games, they won five on the trot before another wobbly bit and then another 5 straight. Eleven wins, four losses and, critically, 9 bonus points which meant they topped the overall log and forced the Lions to travel to New Zealand for the final.

Beauden Barrett had a stellar season with 223 points which included no less than nine tries. He was the kingpin in a team that sometimes produced some of the most spectacular rugby imaginable. He will fill that role again in 2017.

The off-season has again seen the northern hemisphere poach a host of New Zealand, South African, and Australian players. The Canes have also felt the pain.

Players leaving New Zealand were: Motu Matu’u (Gloucester), Victor Vito (La Rochelle), Jamison Gibson-Park (Leinster), James Marshall (London Irish), Willis Halaholo (Cardiff Blues), and perennial wanderer Jason Woodward who again pulled his anchor and headed off to Bristol.

Other who left are Hisa Sasagi (Otago), James Blackwell (Wellington), Christian Lloyd (Wellington), Iopu Iopu-Aso (Taranaki), Tony Lamborn (Hawke’s Bay), TJ Va’a (Wellington), all returning to provincial and club rugby.

New Recruits are: Sam Lousi from the Waratahs, Reed Prinsep (Crusaders), Ben Lam (Blues), all moving from other Super Rugby outfits, while Toa Halafihi (Taranaki), Kylem O’Donnell (Taranaki), Jordie Barrett (Canterbury), Peter Umaga-Jensen (Wellington) were signed from the provinces.

The signing of Beauden’s 19-year-old brother Jordie Barrett adds another exciting dimension to their midfield, and he adds an educated goal kicking boot to the mix too. If Beauden’s boot misfires, his brother can take over!

The return of Milner-Skudder gives the ‘Canes enormous additional firepower (as if they needed it!) and their strike power out on the wings is probably as good as any in the world, if not the very best, especially if Julian Savea plays to his considerable potential.

There seems to be a slight problem at lock, and they will want to see James Broadhurst back from injury as soon as possible. The back-row is impressively solid. Shields, Savea and Thomson are backed by Gibbins, Prinsep, Halafihi and Renton.

The Cane’s full squad is:

Forwards: Props: Chris Eves, Reg Goodes, Mike Kainga, Ben May, Jeff To’omaga-Allen, Loni Uhila. Hookers: Leni Apisai, Dane Coles, Ricky Riccitelli. Locks: Mark Abott, James Broadhurst, Geoff Cridge, Michael Fatialofa, Sam Lousi. Loose-Forwards: Callum Gibbins, Toa Halafihi, Reed Prinsep, Hugh Renton, Ardie Savea, Brad Shields, Blade Thomson.

Backs: Kylem O’Donnell, TJ Perenara, Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, Beauden Barrett, Otere Black, Pita Ahki, Jordie Barrett, Vince Aso, Wes Goosen, Ngani Laumape ,Matt Proctor, Cory Jane, Ben Lam, Nehe Milner-Skudder, Julian Savea, Peter Umaga-Jensen.

Prospects for 2017:

One prediction I am very sure of: Ardie Savea’s odd hairstyle will continue to draw comment.

Unlike last year I expect a decent start from the Hurricanes when they kick off against the Sunwolves and then the Rebels a week later. They have two weeks to hone their skills before facing the Chiefs and the Highlanders on consecutive weekends. These two games may give us pointers for the rest of the season!

They have also learned how to win a trophy that eluded them for so long. I expect to see them in the final again!

Fixtures:

Saturday, February 25 v Sunwolves (Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium, Tokyo)
Saturday, March 4 v Rebels (Westpac Stadium, Wellington)
Friday, March 10 v Chiefs (FMG Stadium, Hamilton)
Saturday, March 18 v Highlanders (Westpac Stadium)
Round 5, Bye
Saturday, April 1 v Reds (Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane)
Friday, April 7 v Waratahs (Westpac Stadium, Wellington)
Saturday, April 15 v Blues (Eden Park, Auckland)
Friday, April 21 v Brumbies (McLean Park, Napier)
Round 10, Bye
Friday, May 5 v Stormers (Westpac Stadium, Wellington)
Saturday, May 13 v Crusaders (AMI Stadium, Christchurch)
Saturday, May 20 v Cheetahs (Westpac Stadium, Wellington)
Saturday, May 27 v Bulls (Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria)
Saturday, June 3 v Force (nib Stadium, Perth)
Friday, June 9 v Chiefs (Westpac Stadium, Wellington)
Saturday, July 15 v Crusaders (Westpac Stadium, Wellington)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Super Rugby Preview 2017

 

Part Three

 

Judges, TMO’s and Some Aussie Teams.

 

 

The Judicial System

 

 

The SANZAAR judicial process has been the subject of much scorn, huge bewilderment, and no little amusement. Findings and sanctions have been massively inconsistent and weirdly implemented since day one. Some players get lengthy suspensions, others get fined, and yet others get a slap on the wrist and a “naughty boy” ticking off, for identical offenses. There is a visible inconsistency between the sanctions applied to New Zealand based players, and those from the other conferences. New Zealanders can expect a slap on the wrist for most offences, others get hammered.

 

Judicial officials most usually simply ignore a player’s track record when deciding on a suitable punishment for an offence. Serial offenders are frequently praised for their clean record. Even more laughably, an apology is considered a mitigating factor when a sentence is passed. A “contrite” player who eats a suitable amount of humble pie can be assured of lenient treatment, no matter how bad his offence. Criminal assault is okay, if you are sorry afterwards!

 

In addition to the weird and wonderful ways of the Judicial Officials and their findings, we have seen the “professionalization” of a miscreant player’s defence. No player appears before a Judicial Official without his lawyer, a representative of his players’ union, and a couple of his franchise management team representatives. They mount a concerted defence aimed at ensuring as little or no sanction for whatever offence is being considered.

 

 

Justice is NOT seen to be done.

 

The system is broken, and has become the laughing stock of world rugby. Inconsistencies between the sanctions applied in the northern hemisphere and the southern hemisphere have been the subject of media articles and broadcast comments. Something had to be done to fix what is so obviously broken.

 

Where to now SANZAAR?

 

Well, they say they have done something about the judicial process. They have announced an “updated” judicial process that will be implemented in Super Rugby 2017. 

 

SANZAAR CEO Andy Marinos said, “The new process is the result of the identification of certain challenges within the application of an effective and consistent judicial process. It has followed a comprehensive review of Super Rugby 2016  and a consultation process with the Four National Unions (ARU, NZR, SARU and UAR). The changes also follow World Rugby’s acceptance, following a Judicial Review Conference last year, that competition organisers be allowed to tailor judicial processes to suit the challenges associated within their competitions.”

 

“SANZAAR believes Super Rugby has unique challenges across six territories and 15 time zones and the enhanced Super Rugby judicial process will deliver a more streamlined and effective system for teams and a more consistent outcome for players and fans to identify with.”

 

The changes SANZAAR have made to their Judicial Rules for 2017 include permitting an incident to be referred back to the Citing Commissioner for review if new evidence becomes available outside the existing allowable time frame for determination. This effectively overrides the previous limited time frame that required Citing Commissioners to implement proceedings against a possible offender within a very restricted period.

 

We also see the introduction of a three-person Foul Play Review Committee. The committee will be comprised of a consistent panel of three members who in the first instance will review all incidents of red cards, Citing Commissioner referrals and misconduct, and decide based on the information before them. The committee will meet at a fixed time to be determined after each round of fixtures and the infringing player will have the right to accept the decision of the committee or have the right to be heard at a formal judicial hearing within the following 24 hours.

 

SANZAAR has appointed senior Judicial Officer Nigel Hampton QC (New Zealand) to chair the committee and he will be assisted by former Super Rugby and international players, John Langford (Australia) and Stefan Terblanche (South Africa).

 

I am not sure whether this enhances the judicial process or not. It appears that all incidents of foul play will thus be heard by just this one committee, which can impose sanctions for such incidents. If a player refuses to accept the sentence, the matter goes to a “formal judicial hearing” within 24 hours of the committee offering their first finding and sanction.

 

It seems to introduce a new, lower level of judicial hearing with the next level being something akin to an Appeal Court?

 

2017 will also see the inclusion of the regular season bye rounds in any sanction applied to an offending player. I am not completely sure what this means.

 

In the past a player who was suspended for a number of matches and was fortunate enough to find his suspension coincided with a bye weekend would make use of a loophole that allowed a match scheduled for his local club to be considered one of the “suspended” matches. The Australian franchises were especially good at using this loophole. If there was a bye weekend coming up the miscreant player would “most certainly” have turned out for his local club as “he definitely needed the on-field game time” – Just this pesky suspension means that he cannot play for his club and will be forced to sit on the sidelines and rest, just like every other player in his franchise team!

 

In reality no Super Rugby player has ever returned to club rugby during a bye weekend. Ever! They need the physical and mental recovery time! The cynical abuse of this loophole needed to be stopped. We hope the “club rugby weekend” loophole is now a thing of the past.

 

A final “change” to the judicial process is the addition of the ability of Judicial Committees to issue a warning for foul play offences that in their opinion do not quite meet the ‘Red Card’ threshold. Previously this power rested with the Citing Commissioner.

 

World Rugby has endorsed the new processes. It remains to be seen whether we will finally have consistent findings and sanctions by SANZAAR judicial officers that are in line with the findings and sanctions applied by the rest of world rugby. And no more slaps on the wrist for New Zealanders……

 

And now, that other Elephant In The Room!

 

The Television Match Officials.

 

Sanzaar has announced that it has made an amendment to the television match official (TMO) protocol for the 2017 super rugby season.

 

If ever a system or process required a rethink and fixing it is the TMO’s of the world. But it is not the protocol that needs fixing, it is the standard and competency of the TMO’s themselves! Their understanding and application of the laws has often been woeful, if not downright embarrassing! Their visual acuity has often been questionable too! They cannot see simple transgressions that the entire world can see played out on the TV screen. Sometimes they see transgressions that are invisible to anyone else in the sane world.

 

TMO’s have often sought to override the on-field authority of the referee. They have frequently overstepped the authority granted them by World Rugby’s protocols that states that the on-field referee has the final decision. Some TMO’s have fought hard to change a referee’s decision, even when the TMO’s opinion is horribly wrong!

 

And then there has been the obvious bias and direct interference of some TMO’s seeking to influence the outcome of a game. We have seen certain TMO’s show evident bias against certain teams. George Ayoub of Australia is one such TMO, he has frequently shown that he will do anything he can to get players from certain countries suspended from a game.

 

So, what changes will SANZAAR impose on the TMO’s in 2017? Will they require them to be qualified first class referees who know and understand the laws of the game? Will they require them to pass an eye test?

 

Nope. But they will fiddle with the process!

 

The SANZAAR adaptation states: “Should the referee or one of his team (Assistant Referees or TMO), wish to initiate a review of a decision (via replay by the TMO), the referee will first state to the TMO his “on-field decision” based on his real-time view. The TMO will then review the given incident accordingly based on the referee’s assessment. The TMO must be persuaded that the evidence is compelling before proving the on-field referee’s call wrong, and therefore overturning the call.”

 

The adaptation allows the referee to review the incident on the big screen (or request the TMO to review it if the replay screen is of poor quality) with no ‘on-field decision’ prior to the review.”

 

SANZAAR says: “In summary, this protocol change makes the process clean and efficient and places accountability for an “on-field call” in the hands of the referee and a review of that decision in the hands of the TMO.”

 

And I have a huge problem with that!

 

For the first time in the history of our game the referee’s final and overriding authority has been changed. The TMO now has the final decision on any review! He also has the authority to intervene in the game and a referee’s decision regarding the awarding of a try or any aspect of “foul play” perhaps missed by the on-field referee and his assistants.

 

Based simply on the track record of the TMO’s and their often questionable and frequently laughable decisions, the new amendment promises to cause more delays in the game, more interruptions in the flow of the game, plenty of confusion, some pain, and a whole lot of anger.

 

The system is broken, and SANZAAR have not fixed it!

 

 

Team Previews:

 

 

The Australian Conference

 

 

Our preview of the Australian teams must start with the mention of the very sad news of the passing of ex-Wallaby Dan Vickermann at the age of just 37.

 

 

Born in South Africa and schooled at Diocesan College (Bishops) in Cape Town, Dan played for South Africa’s U21 team in 1999. He moved to Australia and joined the Brumbies, playing for them from 2001 to 2003 before switching to the Waratahs in 2004, playing there until the end of his career. He retired early in 2012 due to ongoing problems with stress fractures in his right leg.

 

 

Capped by Australia 63 times between 2002 and 2011 he played in three World Cup tournaments.

 

 

Rest in Peace Dan.  Our thoughts and prayers are with your family.

 

 

Over in Australia rugby union has often taken a back seat in the popularity stakes, with that unique OZ game of “footie” taking precedence, along with the likes of cricket and rugby league. Even soccer has sometimes drawn bigger crowds than our game of rugby.

 

 

This is odd, because the figures that Australian Rugby themselves provide to World Rugby regarding the number of registered rugby players consistently suggest that Australia have the fourth most registered rugby players in the whole world, 230 663 such players, and the third most active participants in the game, 615 809. (These are the most recent figures provided to World Rugby and contained in their annual report for 2014. We await the publication of the 2015 report with interest.)

 

 

Yet, with such a large number of registered players, and with almost triple that number in active participants in the game, the game is constantly in trouble in the land of OZ. They have consistently registered financial losses at every level of the game, from the national union down to the clubs. They have sought an increased share of the SANZAAR money pool, and have frequently suggested that they would be better off if the Super series excluded South Africa and was expanded to include the Pacific Islands and Japan.

 

 

New Zealand has frequently had to remind the independence minded Aussies that it is South African television revenues that are keeping SANZAAR afloat, and consequently keeps Australian and New Zealand rugby from sinking into bankruptcy! They might want to be divorced from South African rugby, but they cannot survive without it!

 

 

Just yesterday the Queensland Rugby Union, the home of the Reds, reported “positive earnings” for the 2016 financial year. Their loss is just A$789 380! (That is R7 893 800 in South African terms!) This is a vast improvement over the 2015 loss of A$2 181 330, but it is still a heavy financial loss, and Queensland is financially the strongest of the Australian franchises!

 

 

The Force very nearly closed their doors at the end of 2016. Their finances are in disarray, their management was in a mess, and their team were walking bonus points for the rest of Super Rugby teams. Stadiums were empty and The Force were dying. The Australian Rugby Union had to step in and take control of the franchise in order to save it from extinction. (Much like South Africa’s Kings!)

 

 

The Brumbies had their boardroom woes and some very public spats between officials and the board of directors, money issues were huge, and the fans were missing from the capital city’s stadium. The Rebels have never made a profit, nor have the Waratahs.

 

 

All in all, Australian rugby is not in a good place financially. The fans are staying away in their droves, and their franchises have struggled in the Super Rugby competition. If it were not for the automatic quarterfinal qualification berth for the winner of the Australian Conference, no Aussie team would have made it to the playoffs in 2016.

 

 

What then, for 2017?

 

 

 

BRUMBIES

 

 

Australian Conference Champions and playoff contenders last year, the Brumbies managed to accumulate just 43 points during the regular season of 2016. Effectively, they finished joint 8th on the log with South Africa’s Sharks. They managed just 3 bonus points as they lost 5 of their fifteen games. Six of their ten wins were against fellow Aussie franchises. (The lowly Sunwolves, occupiers of the bottom rung on the log, also managed 3 bonus points!)

 

Since the end of the 2016 season the publically aired board room battles have continued, and they have to deal with the news that coach Stephen Larkham is joining the Wallaby coaching squad on a full time basis as assistant to Michael Cheika, and that they need to find a replacement at the end of the season.

 

Their long-time captain, Stephen Moore has headed off to the Reds, they have a bunch of key players out with injury, David Pocock is taking a year off, Robbie Coleman has gone too. This is not a happy team and a happy franchise.

 

What then in 2017?

 

The pre-season has started badly, with their Argentinean scrum half, Tomás Cubelli’s knee injury likely to keep him out of the game for the next six months, while Lausii Taliauli’s knee injury is more severe and he will be out for the whole season.

 

Christian Lealiifano has had a bone-marrow transplant, and his cancer is in remission, but he will unable to play for the whole season.

 

Transfers have also hurt the Brumbies squad, with a number of players heading to northern climes hunting Euros, Pounds or Yen. They are: Albert Anae (Mitsubishi Dynaboars), Ruan Smith (Toyota Verblitz), Matt Toomua (Leicester Tigers), and Joe Tomane (Montpellier)

 

Three players are heading elsewhere in Australia: Stephen Moore (Reds), Robbie Coleman (Force), and Michael Wells (Waratahs),

 

Michael Dowsett is going to Southland in New Zealand.

 

And then there is David Pocock taking a sabbatical from Super Rugby, while Ita Vaea has retired from the game.

 

The Brumbies have managed to recruit a number of experienced players from other Super Rugby teams, one being Nic Mayhew from the New Zealand Blues. Two of the many Fainga’a brothers will play together for the Brumbies, Twins Saia and Anthony have both joined from the Reds. Other recruits from the Reds are: Lolo Fakaosilea and Tom Banks. Kyle Godwin and Chris Alcock join from the Force.

 

Other new recruits are: Faalelei Sione (University of Canberra Vikings), Tom Cusack (Australia Sevens), Rob Valetini (Melbourne Harlequins), Ryan Lonergan (Tuggeranong Vikings), Wharenui Hawera (Southland).

 

The full Brumbies Squad is:

 

Forwards: Allan Alaalatoa, Ben Alexander, Leslie Leulua’iali’i-Makin, Nic Mayhew, Scott Sio, Faalelei Sione, Robbie Abel, Saia Fainga’a, Josh Mann-Rea, Rory Arnold, Sam Carter, Blake Enever, Tom Staniforth, Chris Alcock, Jarrad Butler, Tom Cusack, Lolo Fakaosilea, Scott Fardy, Ben Hyne, Jordan Smiler, Rob Valetini.

 

Backs: Tomás Cubelli, Ryan Lonergan, Joe Powell, Anthony Fainga’a, Kyle Godwin, Jordan Jackson-Hope, Nick Jooste, Christian Lealiifano, Nigel Ah Wong, James Dargaville, Tevita Kuridrani, Andrew Smith, Henry Speight, Lausii Taliauli, Tom Banks, Aidan Toua.

 

The Brumbies will need their new captain and lock Sam Carter to lead from the front along with fellow internationals Sam Carter, Scott Sio, Rory Arnold, Ben Alexander and Allan Alaalatoa in the scrum.

 

They also have the likes of Tevita Kuridrani and Henry Speight amongst a potentially exciting back division.

 

Prospects in 2017: 

 

The Brumbies have made it to the play-offs every year of Stephen Larkham’s tenure but the boardroom shenanigans, the loss of senior players, and the sense of an unhappy squad might make it very difficult in 2017.

 

Fixtures

 

Saturday, February 25 v Crusaders (AMI Stadium, Christchurch)
Saturday, March 4 v Sharks (GIO Stadium, Canberra)
Friday, March 10 v Force (GIO Stadium, Canberra)
Saturday, March 18 v Waratahs (Allianz Stadium, Sydney)
Saturday, March 25 v Highlanders (GIO Stadium, Canberra)
Round 6: BYE
Saturday, April 8 v Reds (GIO Stadium, Canberra)
Saturday, April 15 v Rebels (AAMI Park, Melbourne)
Friday, April 21 v Hurricanes (McLean Park, Napier)
Sunday, April 30 v Blues (GIO Stadium, Canberra)
Round 11: BYE
Friday, May 12 v Lions (GIO Stadium, Canberra)
Saturday, May 20 v Kings (Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, Port Elizabeth)
Saturday, May 27 v Jaguares (Velez Sarsfield, Buenos Aires)
Saturday, June 3 v Rebels (GIO Stadium, Canberra)
Friday, July 7 v Reds (Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane)
Saturday, July 15 v Chiefs (FMG Stadium, Waikato)

 

 

 

 

FORCE

 

Ahh, the Force!

 

Woeful on the field of play in 2016, and even worse off the field. Financial issues, empty stadiums, disciplinary problems, unhappy players, contractual issues and all sorts of other distractions resulted in the Force being something less than their name implies.

 

On the positive side, they have somehow survived after being placed under administration by the Australian Rugby Union, and they have managed to avoid the bankruptcy court that was beckoning as 2016 faded away. 2017 looms with the prospect that it could not get any worse, the only way is up.

 

As with all their Southern Hemispherean counterparts, the Force have also lost a host of players to the North.  Ollie Hoskins has gone to London Irish, Nathan Charles to Clermont, Steve Mafi is playing for Castres, Rory Walton joined Carcassonne, Alby Mathewson is with Bristol, Junior Rasolea headed to Edinburgh, and Ben Tapuai to Bath.

 

Three players left for other Super Rugby franchises: Chris Heiberg (Kings), Guy Millar (Highlanders), Chris Alcock (Brumbies), Kyle Godwin (Brumbies).

 

And an unfortunate four found themselves without a playing contract for 2017. Ammon Matuauto, Brad Lacey, Albert Nikoro, and Tom Sexton all released from their contracts.

 

Replacements recruited by the Force include four with Super Rugby experience: Ben Daley (Reds), Tatafu Polota-Nau (Waratahs), Ben Matwijow (Reds), and Robbie Coleman (Brumbies),

 

They have also recruited locally and elsewhere from club ranks: Curtis Rona (Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs), Alex Newsome (NSW Country Eagles), Shambeckler Vui (Perth Spirit), Richie Arnold (development squad), Isi Naisarani (Brisbane City), Michael Ruru (Perth Spirit), Chance Peni (Wests Tigers).

 

Finally, Bill Meakes joins from English club Gloucester.

 

The full Force squad is:

 

 

Forwards: Jermaine Ainsley, Richard Arnold, Adam Coleman, Angus Cottrell, Pek Cowan, Ben Daley, Tetera Faulkner, Richard Hardwick, Ross Haylett-Petty, Matt Hodgson, Kane Koteka, Ben Matwijow, Ben McCalman, Isi Naisarani, Matt Philip, Tatafu Polota-Nau, Anaru Rangi, Harry Scoble, Brynard Stander, Heath Tessmann, Francios van Wyk, Shambeckler Vui.

 

 

Backs: Marcel Brache, Luke Burton, Robbie Coleman, Peter Grant, Dane Haylett-Petty, Jono Lance, Ryan Louwrens, Semisi Masirewa, Bill Meakes, Luke Morahan, Chance Peni, Ian Prior, Curtis Rona, Michael Ruru.

 

In 2016 the Force showed a lot of guts as they lost game after game after game, winning just 2 of their games in the entire season. It is interesting to note that they accumulated five losing bonus-points and a -181 points difference – compared to the Kings’ who also won 2 but managed just one bonus point and a staggering -402 points difference.

 

Probably the only bright spot in a woeful 2016 was the emergence of Dane Haylett-Petty as a regular Wallaby pick. He will need to bring his “A” game to Perth again this year.

 

Prospects for 2017:

 

Hmm, I hope they finish above at least one other Aussie side on the log, but I cannot really see that happening.

 

Fixtures:

Saturday, February 25 v Waratahs (Allianz Stadium, Sydney)
Thursday, March 2 v Reds (nib Stadium, Perth)
Friday, March 10 v Brumbies (GIO Stadium, Canberra)
Round 4, Bye
Friday, March 24 v Crusaders (AMI Stadium, Christchurch)
Saturday, April 1 v Blues (Eden Park, Auckland)
Sunday, April 9 v Kings (nib Stadium, Perth)
Round 8, Bye
Saturday, April 22 v Chiefs (nib Stadium, Perth)
Saturday, April 29 v Lions (nib Stadium, Perth)
Saturday, May 6 v Sharks (Kings Park, Durban)
Saturday, May 13 v Jaguares (Estadio José Amalfitani, Buenos Aires)
Saturday, May 20 v Highlanders (nib Stadium, Perth)
Friday, May 26 v Reds (Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane)
Saturday, June 3 v Hurricanes (nib Stadium, Perth)
Friday, July 7 v Rebels (nib Stadium, Perth)
Saturday, July 15 v Waratahs (nib Stadium, Perth)

 

 

 

 

REBELS

 

 

Will 2017 be the Rebels’ breakout year? Will this be the year they finish higher than 10th on the overall log for the first time?

 

2016 was their 6th year in Super Rugby, and after much talk, some promising moments and some mediocre rugby, they only managed a low 12th on the log. They started well winning four of their first six matches and made some confident suggestions that they would be in the run for a playoff slot, and then it all went downhill from there….  The next 9 matches saw just 3 more wins and a huge 85-26 thrashing by the Crusaders. 2016 did not end well.

 

Now we have 2017 to think about.

The Rebels have a massive mountain to climb as they face their first six fixtures. They face the Blues, Hurricanes, Chiefs, Waratahs, Highlanders and Brumbies. Although they do have a bye in Round 3 after the Blues and then the Canes on consecutive weekends, the next three weeks are torrid, Chiefs, Waratahs, and then the Highlanders, before another bye in Round 7, and then the Brumbies arrive for the sixth of the openers.

 

After that it gets worse – the next 10 weeks loom without a bye. What exactly were the SANZAAR fixture committee thinking? Immediately after the Brumbies it is off to South Africa for the Sharks, then a rest against the Kings, then home again to face the Lions….. 10 weeks on the trot.

 

The Injury Monster and all the Super Rugby playing and travel fatigue that has been the subject of so many complaints from the franchises will probably drown the Rebels before the 10 weeks is history.

 

You are probably bored with my constant repetition of players leaving to go north for the money? The Rebel have lost some too:

 

The migrants are: Jamie Hagan (Béziers), Luke Jones (Bordeaux), Scott Fuglistaller (Toyota Industries Shuttles), Adam Thomson (Canon Eagles), Tamati Ellison (Ricoh Black Rams), Mike Harris (Lyon), and Kotaro Matsushima (Sunwolves)

 

Cam Crawford has been released from his contract while, Ryan Cocker (Taranaki), Daniel Hawkins (Northland), Paul Asquith (Western Sydney Rams) all head off to club rugby.

 

New recruits into the Rebels squad are: Ben Volavola from the Crusaders, Tyrel Lomax ex-Brumbies, Jake Schatz, and Kentaro Kodama from the Sunwolves, all with Super Rugby experience.

 

Others are: Jordan Uelese (from Melbourne University), Dominic Day (Toyota Verblitz), Alex Toolis (Edinburgh), Amanaki Mafi (NTT Shining Arcs), Jackson Garden-Bachop (Wellington), Jack McGregor (Gordon), Dennis Pili-Gaitau (Sydney Rays), Pama Fou (Australia Sevens), and Marika Koroibete (Melbourne Storm)

 

Prospects for 2017.

 

The Rebels have a fixture list from hell. Six really tough games early on, and both the byes squeezed into the first six weeks! And then ten straight weeks of Super Rugby on the trot.

 

They will not be featuring in the playoffs in 2017.

 

Fixtures

Thursday, February 23 v Blues (AAMI Park, Melbourne)
Saturday, March 4 v Hurricanes (Westpac Stadium, Wellington)
Round 3: BYE
Friday, March 17 v Chiefs (AAMI Park, Melbourne)
Friday, March 24 v Waratahs (AAMI Park, Melbourne)
Friday, March 31 v Highlanders (Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin)
Round 7: BYE
Saturday, April 15 v Brumbies (AAMI Park, Melbourne)
Saturday, April 22 v Sharks (Growthpoint Kings Park, Durban)
Saturday, April 29 v Kings (Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, Port Elizabeth)
Saturday, May 6 v Lions (AAMI Park, Melbourne)
Saturday, May 13 v Reds (AAMI Park, Melbourne)
Sunday, May 21 v Waratahs (Allianz Stadium, Sydney)
Saturday, May 27 v Crusaders (AAMI Park, Melbourne)
Saturday, June 3 v Brumbies (GIO Stadium, Canberra)
Friday, July 7 v Force (nib Stadium, Perth)
Friday, July 14 v Jaguares (AAMI Park, Melbourne)

 

 

 

REDS

 

 

 

When I tried to talk to my friend Jerry about the Reds of 2016 he changed the subject. 2016 does not exist in his book. Nor 2015. But he does want to talk about 2017!

 

You can understand that Reds supporters do not want to talk about 2016. It is year they are trying hard to forget. 2016 was the year when they won just 3 games of their 15 played, They did manage a draw against the Blues and somehow managed to beat the Highlanders 28 to 27, and beat the Cheetahs 30 to 14, and also downed the Sunwolves 35 to 25.

 

After much speculation about his future at the end of a seriously bad 2015, it took the Reds until midway through 2016 before they parted company with coach Richard Graham, and immediately started to improve!

 

They finished fourth on the Aussie log, but that equated to 15th on the overall log, and that is not very good, is it?

 

 

We can understand why supporters do not want to talk about 2016. But they do want to talk about 2017. You see, 2017 has seen the Reds splash out the recruitment monies and sign a whole host of fresh faces.

 

 

Nick Stiles was appointed head coach, and several established and ex-Wallabies have joined the ranks:  Quade Cooper, Scott Higginbotham, George Smith are back from overseas wanderings and Stephen Moore is home from the Brumbies.

 

 

The full list of new signings is: Markus Vanzati (Brisbane City), Alex Mafi (Queensland Country), Stephen Moore (Brumbies), Izack Rodda (Queensland Country), George Smith (Wasps), Scott Higginbotham (NEC Green Rockets), Moses Sorovi (Brisbane City), Quade Cooper (Toulon), Lachlan Maranta (Brisbane Broncos, Jayden Ngamanu (Souths)

 

 

Of course, there has been the usual exodus of players heading north to Europe or Japan. Greg Holmes (Exeter Chiefs), Curtis Browning (Lyon), Liam Gill (Toulon), Sam Greene (Toyota Industries Shuttles), Ayumu Goromaru (Toulon), JJ Taulagi (Munakata Sanix Blues),

 

 

A number of players have left the Reds for other Super franchises: Ben Daley (Western Force), Saia Fainga’a (Brumbies), Ben Matwijow (Western Force), Lolo Fakaosilea (Brumbies), Jake Schatz (Rebels), Anthony Fainga’a (Brumbies), and Tom Banks (Brumbies),

 

 

A further contingent of players return to club or provincial rugby: Waita Setu (GPS), Matt Mafi (Brisbane City), Scott Gale (Western Sydney Rams), Alex Gibbon (Brisbane City), Junior Laloifi (Brisbane City), Jack Tuttle (Norths)

 

 

The full Reds squad is:

 

 

Forwards: Alex Mafi, Stephen Moore, Andrew Ready, Kane Douglas, Cadeyrn Neville, Izack Rodda, Rob Simmons, Lukhan Tui, Michael Gunn, Reece Hewat, Scott Higginbotham, Leroy Houston Adam Korczyk, George Smith, Caleb Timu, Hendrik Tui

 

 

Backs: Nick Frisby, Moses Sorovi, James Tuttle, Quade Cooper, Jake McIntyre, Samu Kerevi, Campbell Magnay, Duncan Paia’aua, Henry Taefu, Chris Feauai-Sautia, Karmichael Hunt, Chris Kuridrani, Lachlan Maranta, Jayden Ngamanu Eto Nabuli, Izaia Perese.

 

 

Prospects for 2017:

 

 

The recruiting of Moore, Cooper, Higginbotham and the evergreen George Smith brings a lot of experience and physicality to the Reds squad. (Oh, okay, so Cooper is not known for physicality, but the other three are!)

 

 

2017 will be better than 2016, without a doubt, but I do not see them making the playoffs.

 

 

Fixtures

 

 

Friday, 24 February v Sharks (Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane)
Saturday, 4 March v Western Force (nib Stadium, Perth)
Saturday, 11 March v Crusaders (Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane)
Saturday, 18 March v Lions (Emirates Airlines Park, Johannesburg)
Saturday, 25 March v Jaguares (    Vélez Sarsfield, Buenos Aires)
Saturday, 1 April v Hurricanes (Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane)
Saturday, 8 April v Brumbies (GIO Stadium, Canberra)
Saturday, 15 April v Kings (Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane)
Round 9: BYE
Saturday, 29 April v Waratahs (Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane)
Saturday, 6 May v Chiefs (tbc)
Saturday, 13 May v Rebels (AAMI Park, Melbourne)
Round 13: BYE
Friday, 26 May v Western Force (Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane)
Friday, 2 June v Blues (tbc)
Friday, 7 July v Brumbies (Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane)
Friday, 14 July v Highlanders (Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

WARATAHS

 

 

Much like their northern neighbours, the Reds, the Tahs would rather not talk about 2016. They failed to qualify for the playoffs and finished second in a weak Australian conference, 10th on the overall Super Rugby log with just 40 points. Eight of those points were bonus points which saved the blushes slightly after just 8 wins and seven losses.

 

 

 

One expected much more from a team with names such as Israel Folau, Kurtley Beale, Will Skelton, Michael Hooper, Taqele Naiyaravoro, and Bernard Foley in their ranks.

 

 

2017 will not be easy. They’ve lost some key players like Kurtley Beale, Wycliff Palu, Benn Robinson, and Tatafu Polota-Nau. They have also lost long time captain Dave Dennis.

 

The players who have left include the usual contingent of recruits heading to Europe or Japan: Kurtley Beale (Wasps), Dave Dennis (Exeter Chiefs), Cameron Orr (Gloucester), Wycliff Palu (Toyota Verblitz), and Henry Clunies-Ross (Lyon).

 

Zac Guildford, Matthew Carraro, and Jeremy Tilse were all released from their contracts, while Jim Stewart was not named in the 2017 squad. Benn Robinson has retired from rugby. Sam Lousi has gone to the Hurricanes, Tatafu Polota-Nau  joined the Force. James Hilterbrand has gone to the Sydney Rays.

 

There are no really big names amongst the new recruits: Perhaps the biggest name is Sekope Kepu, back from Bordeaux, others are Cameron Clark (Australia Sevens), Irae Simone (Sydney Rays), Mack Mason (Queensland Country), Michael Wells (Brumbies), David McDuling (Sharks), Damien Fitzpatrick (Lyon), Sam Needs (NSW Country Eagles)

 

The full squad is:

 

Forwards: Sekope Kepu, Sam Needs, Tom Robertson, Paddy Ryan, Matt Sandell, Angus Ta’avao, Damien Fitzpatrick, Tolu Latu, Hugh Roach, Ned Hanigan, Ryan McCauley, David McDuling, Dean Mumm, Will Skelton, Senio Toleafoa, Jack Dempsey, Jed Holloway, Michael Hooper, Michael Wells, Brad Wilkin.

 

Backs: Jake Gordon, Matt Lucas Nick Phipps, Andrew Deegan, Bernard Foley, Bryce Hegarty, Mack Mason, Israel Folau, Irae Simone, Rob Horne, David Horwitz, Cameron Clark, Harry Jones, Taqele Naiyaravoro, Andrew Kellaway, Reece Robinson.

 

Prospects for 2017:

 

This team underperformed in 2016. They must surely improve and aim to win the Aussie conference in 2017. They could do it.

 

Fixtures

 

Saturday, February 25 v Force (Allianz Stadium, Sydney)
Saturday, March 4 v Lions (Emirates Airlines Park)
Friday, March 10 Sharks v Waratahs (Kings Park)
Saturday, March 18 v Brumbies (Allianz Stadium)
Friday, March 24 v Rebels (AAMI Park)
Sunday, April 2 v Crusaders (Allianz Stadium)
Friday, April 7    Hurricanes v Waratahs (TBC)
Round 8: BYE
Saturday, April 22 v Kings (Allianz Stadium)
Saturday, April 29 v Reds (Suncorp Stadium)
Saturday, May 6 v Blues (Allianz Stadium)
Round 12: BYE
Sunday, May 21 v Rebels (Allianz Stadium)
Saturday, May 27 v Highlanders (Forsyth Barr Stadium)
Saturday, June    3 v Chiefs (TBC)
Saturday, July 8 v Jaguares (Allianz Stadium)
Saturday, July 15 v Force (nib Stadium)

 

 

Next Up South Africa, Argentina and Japan.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Super Rugby Preview 2017

 

Part Four

 

Coaching Indabas, Migrant Labour, and the “South African” Conferences

 

 

 

 

 

Coaching Indabas

 

There was a visible panic spreading through South Africa after the 2016 International Rugby season. The mighty Springboks had slipped off their pedestal as one of the world’s two top rugby sides, sinking down to a lowly sixth position in the World Rugby rankings. Imagine that, South Africa are below Wales, Ireland, Australia, England, and (obviously) New Zealand.

 

The country was devastated! At least, rugby supporters were devastated, this was the worst news possible, a calamity of epic proportions. (Some did think the El Niño and the ongoing drought, the muddle we call our government, corruption in high places, global warming, state capture, wildfires in Australia, the strife in the Middle East, North Korean missile tests, and the strangeness of the American election were far more calamitous than the performance of a young rugby team, but that mattered not one iota to the average Bok supporter.)

 

The mid-year tour and the Rugby Championships had caused much noise, gnashing of teeth and tearing of hair amongst supporters. Every performance was greeted with disdain and increasing gloom. The usual furor that accompanies a Springbok loss was but a dim background noise compared to the nuclear blast of anger and opprobrium that exploded across the South African rugby fan base after the disastrous end-of-year tour to the north. Italy??? How could they???

 

There was the usual call for heads to roll. At the very least Allister Coetzee should be publically lynched, then drawn and quartered, and then the quarters should be further subdivided and distributed throughout the country so that groups of disgruntled supporters could conduct their own rituals of punishment and destruction. There were the usual interviews with ex-players and dinosaurs from a forgotten age of rugby who all spouted off about a “lack of pride” a shortage of “passion” and “lack of commitment” and “unfitness” and how things were better in their day. Professionalism was blamed; the exodus of players to the northern Hemisphere received particular attention; politicians received their share of the blame; administrators found themselves in the spotlight; coaches were ridiculed, referees were lambasted.

 

The rugby supporters of South Africa indulged themselves in mass self-immolation as many swore they would never watch rugby again.

 

And the reality? Years, decades, of playing an archaic, unimaginative, safety first oriented low risk style of physical rugby had finally shown it’s weakness. Crash/Bash kicking rugby belonged to those dinosaurs who berated the Boks for a lack of passion and being unfit, it does not work in the modern era. The opposition are no longer intimidated by great hulking forwards that cannot keep up with the game out wide and massive crashball running centres that go to ground in the midfield after tucking their chin and running at the nearest opponent.

 

Perhaps there is an element of truth in talking about the impact of professionalism, the player exodus, the political interference, poor administrators, unimaginative coaches, and even a biased referee or two, but the reality is that South Africans, in the main, play poor rugby.

 

The response from those that administer the game in South Africa was predictable, yet it might just deliver the beginnings of a solution.

 

They had a meeting.

 

And then another one.

 

They called it a coaching indaba.

 

The Indaba, or rather, the series of three Indabas, were to discuss, establish, spell out and finalise a coaching blueprint for South African rugby.

 

The first Indaba attracted a host of participants. Coaches, ex-coaches, ex-players, current players, media representatives, many many administrators, and even some politicians, attracted, no doubt, by the buffet tables for which South African sports meetings are famous. Some big names avoided attending, mostly ex-Bok coaches who, for some obscure reason, were either not invited or chose to stay away.

 

The second Indaba continued the discussions, although with less attendees than the first meeting. At the end of it all there was a call for a change to the way South Africans play rugby, and the need for a plan to guide all coaches and administrators towards a common style of rugby.

 

We can skip on to the third Indaba. Coaches from the six Super Rugby franchises and the Springbok coaching squad were joined by SA Rugby President, Mr Mark Alexander, Deputy President Francois Davids and Vice President James Stoffberg (all those titles!) at the one-day indaba.

 

 

 

A draft version of the SA Rugby Blueprint was presented at the third meeting. We are told that the identification and implementation of key rugby fundamentals will be done at franchise and Springbok level and the blueprint will be shared with all national teams and local franchises.

 

There is also said to be a much clearer understanding on the resting and playing time of Springboks, while a national conditioning strategy will be finalised within the next two weeks.

 

That is all good stuff. But…….. Now we shall see whether South Africans can start to work together and think in a common direction and for the common good rather than for their own private agendas.

 

Will we see all the South African franchises start playing a similar style of rugby? Much the way all the New Zealand franchises play a similar style. Yes, there can and must be differences in tactics and focus in different teams, but the style should be the same.

 

Will we see South Africa finally abandon the physical, forward dominated crashball infatuated kick chasing brutality of yesteryear for skill and pace? Will we see the ball being moved from hand to hand with offloads, passes and pinpoint accuracy? Will we see fleet-footed runners probing for defensive weaknesses? Will we see support runners running intelligent lines off the ball and opening up the spaces on the field? Will we see the end of mindless kicking and wasted possession?

 

I certainly hope so!

 

The 2017 Super Rugby season will tell us whether all South Africans will embrace a different style of rugby at last. We know they can, the Lions have emphatically proved that! The Stormers have showed glimpses too. The Cheetahs have always played an exciting game of running rugby, but they have not always remembered the other important aspects of the game, like tackling. The Sharks and the Bulls have talked about playing open running rugby, but have never had the courage of their convictions, preferring to revert to old-style Jakeball at every opportunity.

 

I would suggest that South African supporters must not expect miracles. Your teams are a couple of years behind the New Zealand teams in embracing an open attacking style of rugby. Your schools are focused on low-risk win-at-all-costs rugby. Your clubs and provinces do not have the skill levels needed for the modern style you would like to see. It is going to take time, and patience, and plenty of hard work before we see a new national style of rugby that is skills based rather than based on sheer physicality.

 

But, 2017 will tell us whether South Africans actually embrace the need for change!

 

Let’s look at the teams that make up the African Conferences for 2017.

 

 

 

 

South Africa

 

BULLS

 

As an avid rugby fan the Bulls have long frustrated me. They have never been my favourite team, they are after all the old Northern Transvaal team and thus the old enemy. But they have always had so much raw talent on their books, so many youngsters recruited out of Craven Week and the University competitions. So much potential!

 

Yet they have persisted in taking enormously talented youngsters and then forcing, whipping, crushing and panel beating them into a mold that first the old-style Bulls game. A superb running try-scoring opportunistic scrumhalf like Francois Hougaard was recruited from Paul Roos Gymnasium in Stellenbosch, and then turned into a box-kicking pop-passing automaton.

 

Jan Serfontein was a skillful running passing centre when he made the SA Schools team out of Grey College in Bloemfontein. The Bulls transmogrified him into a single-minded crashball specialist whose first option is to always run back into contact as close to his forwards as possible. Jesse Kriel, Burger Odendaal, both with the natural ability to cut the line and run into space, both now constrained and more likely to look for contact and setting up the ball for their forwards.

 

I am hoping, for South African rugby’s sake, that the Bulls will embrace the open game they have been talking about for the last two or three years. It is time for all that young talent to explode on the field of play.

 

2016 saw the Bulls finish 10th on the overall log with 9 wins, 5 losses and a draw. 9 points behind Africa 1 Conference winners, the Stormers, and one point behind the Sharks who took the African Conference wildcard slot.  This was a season the promised much but failed to deliver.

 

After losing the season opener to the Stormers at Newlands, the Bulls put together an impressive seven-game unbeaten run, including six wins and a draw with the Sharks. (This run is less impressive when we look at the quality of the opposition, the Rebels, Sunwolves, Cheetahs, Kings, Reds and the Force were all perennial bottom feeders in Super Rugby.)

 

And then it all went horribly wrong, again. The Bulls do not travel well and their away record is poor. They went over to Australia, and promptly lost to the Brumbies (23-6) and Waratahs (31-8).

 

After that they assumed the mantle of also-rans and slugged out the rest of the season playing some pretty dire rugby.

 

What will 2017 hold in store?

 

Without a doubt the Bulls have some superb talent on their books. Handré Pollard’s return to fitness will be welcomed by the whole country, not just the wearers of light blue tee-shirts and plastic Viking horns. Lood de Jager will certainly benefit from playing in a pack of forwards where he is no longer the sole source of ideas and muscle. His second-row partnership with RG Snyman will be worth watching.

 

The Bulls have, yet again, seen an exodus of players from their ranks. As has become the norm, a bunch of them have headed north, lured by real currency in the form of Euros, Pounds, and Yen. They are: Dean Greyling (Oyonnax), Werner Kruger (Scarlets), Marcel van der Merwe (Toulon), Hencus van Wyk (Munakata Sanix Blues) Grant Hattingh (Kubota Spears, Nico Janse van Rensburg (Montpellier), Lappies Labuschagné (Kubota Spears), and Deon Stegmann (Honda Heat).

 

Others have headed out to local Super franchises, they are: Irné Herbst (Kings), Marvin Orie (Lions), Dan Kriel (Stormers), Bjorn Basson (Stormers), SP Marais (Stormers).

 

Finally, Bandise Maku has retired, Callie Visagie has been released from his contract.

 

Whilst some big names and heavy artillery have left, the Bulls have wielded the chequebook and been on a recruitment spree.

They have brought in Jacobie Adriaanse (Kings), Conraad van Vuuren (Free State Cheetahs), Edgar Marutlulle (Kings), Lood de Jager (Cheetahs), Shaun Adendorff (Boland Cavaliers), Johnny Kôtze (Stormers), and Sibahle Maxwane (Western Province),

 

They have also promoted a host of youngsters and established players from their provincial junior partners, the Blue Bulls. They are: Martin Dreyer (Blue Bulls), John-Roy Jenkinson (Blue Bulls), Gerhard Steenekamp (Blue Bulls), Corniel Els (Blue Bulls), Alandré van Rooyen (Blue Bulls) Abongile Nonkontwana (Blue Bulls, Ryno Pieterse (Blue Bulls), Eli Snyman (Blue Bulls), Hendré Stassen (Blue Bulls), Ruben van Heerden (Blue Bulls), Ruan Steenkamp (Blue Bulls), Marco van Staden (Blue Bulls), Eduan Lubbe (Blue Bulls), Embrose Papier (Blue Bulls), André Warner (Blue Bulls), Tony Jantjies (Blue Bulls), Manie Libbok (Blue Bulls), Boeta Hamman (Blue Bulls), JT Jackson (Blue Bulls), Franco Naudé (Blue Bulls), Irvin Ali (Blue Bulls), Andell Loubser (Blue Bulls), Jade Stighling (Blue Bulls), Ulrich Beyers (Blue Bulls), Earll Douwrie (Blue Bulls), Divan Rossouw (Blue Bulls)

 

Will all this young talent, held together by some old salted warriors, be able to sustain the high level of rugby required throughout a Super Rugby season?

 

The full Bulls squad is:

 

Forwards: Hanro Liebenberg, Arno Botha, Nick de Jager, Renaldo Bothma, Jannes Kirsten, Jacques Potgieter, Roelof Smit, Shaun Adendorff, Ruan Steenkamp, Lood de Jager, RG Snyman, Jason Jenkins, Trevor Nyakane, Conraad van Vuuren, John-Roy Jenkinson, Martin Dreyer, Jacobie Adriaanse, Pierre Schoeman, Lizo Gqoboko, Adriaan Strauss (c), Edgar Marutlulle, Corniel Els, Jaco Visagie.

 

Backs: Ulrich Beyers, Warrick Gelant, Jesse Kriel, Travis Ismaiel, Luther Obi, Jamba Ulengo, Jade Stighling, Duncan Matthews, Kefentse Mahlo, Sibahle Maxwane, Johnny Kotze, Dries Swanepoel, Burger Odendaal, JT Jackson, Jan Serfontein, Francois Brummer, Tony Jantjies, Tian Schoeman, Handre Pollard (c), Ivan van Zyl, Piet van Zyl, Rudy Paige, Andre Warner

 

SANZAAR’s fixture committee strikes again!

 

The Bulls start with an away game against the Stormers at Newlands, and then they face the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein. And then…. Just as their wheels stop creaking from off-season rustiness… they have a bye!

 

Perhaps the benchmark for their season will be their mid-season tour to New Zealand to take on the Blues and Chiefs. Will we see a re-run of their touring yips, or will a new Bulls side emerge?

 

We know the Bulls will field a huge pack of forwards, they always have and will likely always try and do so. But modern rugby requires more than just a massive pack of behemoth forwards trundling around the park. We need to see those talented young backs start to play to their potential. If that happens this Bulls outfit could develop into a formidable team in the next couple of seasons.

 

Prospects for 2017:

 

I am hoping, fingers crossed, for a new approach to the game from this Bulls team. If they do embrace a modern style of rugby, they will be worth the price of a ticket to watch them, but they have a track record of promising a new style, and failing to deliver, year after year.

 

They have the potential and the firepower to challenge for a playoff slot, but………..

 

Fixtures

Saturday, February 25 v Stormers (Newlands Stadium, Cape Town)
Saturday, March 4 v Cheetahs (Toyota Stadium, Bloemfontein)
Round 3: BYE
Friday, March 17 v Sunwolves (Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria)
Saturday, March 25 v Blues (Eden Park, Auckland)
Saturday, April 1 v Chiefs (FMG Stadium, Waikato)
Saturday, April 8 v Sunwolves (Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium, Tokyo)
Saturday, April 15 v Jaguares (Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria)
Saturday, April 22 v Cheetahs (Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria)
Round 10: BYE
Saturday, May 6 v Crusaders (Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria)
Saturday, May 13 v Highlanders (Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria)
Saturday, May 20 v Lions (Ellis Park, Johannesburg)
Saturday, May 27 v Hurricanes (Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria)
Saturday, July 1 v Sharks (Growthpoint Kings Park, Durban)
Saturday, July 8 v Kings (Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria)
Saturday, July 15 v Stormers (Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria)

 

 

CHEETAHS

 

 

Bloemfotein is also known as the breeding ground of young talent and the favoured hunting ground of poachers. Not poachers of the variety that shoot rhino or elephant, or even a couple of impala for the pot, but poachers of the rugby variety. Most frequently the poachers arrive from Kingspark wearing a Sharks tee-shirt, or sneak in from Pretoria disguised in that camouflage outfit once worn by the Bulls.  If there is young talent on view on the rugby fields of Bloemfontein, you can be sure someone is going to try and lure them away from the City of Roses.

 

Yet, somehow the Cheetahs still find enough players to fill a squad, and somehow they find the passion and commitment to produce a superb unbeaten 2016 Currie Cup campaign.

 

Many wise heads will tell you that the Currie Cup is not Super Rugby. They will tell you that the game is much tougher at the higher level and that Currie Cup form does not automatically translate into Super Rugby form.

 

And I will just say two words: “The Lions”……

 

Can the Cheetahs emulate the Currie Cup champions of 2015 and take Super Rugby by storm in 2017?

 

2016 was not a great a year for the Cheetahs in the Super competition. They finished in 14th position on the overall log with just four wins to their name. 21 points from 15 matches is pretty sad, by anyone’s measure. (Unless you are a Kings supporter!)

 

Will 2017 be any better?

 

Unlike any other team in South Africa, New Zealand or Australia, the Cheetahs did not lose a single player to Europe! They did however, lose two to Japan: Willie Britz (Sunwolves), and Coenie van Wyk (Toshiba Brave Lupus).

 

Other who left after 2016 are: Lood de Jager (Bulls), Neil Rautenbach (Western Province), Boela Serfontein (Griffons), Sias Ebersohn (Pumas), and George Whitehead (Griquas),

 

The Cheetahs have recruited a couple of new faces too: Tom Botha (Kings), Junior Pokomela (Kings), Ryno Eksteen (Stormers) all have Super Rugby experience, while the rest are all recruited from the ranks of Currie Cup players: Clinton Swart (Griquas), Elrich de Jager (Free State XV), Günther Janse van Vuuren (Free State XV), Reinach Venter (Free State XV), Ntokoza Vidima (Free State XV), Fiffy Rampeta (Free State XV), Jasper Wiese (Free State XV), Ali Mgijima (Free State XV), and Mosolwa Mafuma (Free State XV)

 

The full Cheetahs squad is:

 

Forwards: Tom Botha, Aranos Coetzee, Luan de Bruin, Erich de Jager, Günther Janse van Vuuren, Charles Marais, Danie Mienie, Ox Nché, Jacques du Toit, Joseph Dweba, Elandré Huggett, Torsten van Jaarsveld, Reinach Venter, Justin Basson, Reniel Hugo, Armandt Koster, Francois Uys, Ntokozo Vidima, Dennis Visser, Carl Wegner, Tienie Burger, Uzair Cassiem, Hilton Lobberts, Steven Meiring, Oupa Mohojé, Gerhard Olivier, Boom Prinsloo, Fiffy Rampeta, Paul Schoeman, Henco Venter, Jasper Wiese, Niell Jordaan, Junior Pokomela.

 

 

Backs: Tian Meyer, Zee Mkhabela, JP Smith, Shaun Venter, , Ryno Eksteen, Niel Marais, Clinton Swart, Fred Zeilinga, Nico Lee, Ali Mgijima, William Small-Smith, Michael van der Spuy, Francois Venter, Lihleli Xoli, Rayno Benjamin, Maphutha Dolo, Mosolwa Mafuma, Sergeal Petersen, Raymond Rhule, Clayton Blommetjies.

 

They start their campaign with three successive home matches – against the Lions, Bulls and Sunwolves – before heading to Buenos Aires to take on the Jaguares. They then head home for the Sharks and down to Newlands for the Stormers before their first bye in the seventh week of the competition.

 

By that time we will know what to expect from this Cheetahs outfit and whether 2017 will be yet another year of bottom dwelling scrambling to survive.

 

Prospects for 2017:

 

The impact of their new coach was not really evident in 2016, until the Currie Cup came around. Can they carry that form into Super Rugby? I fear not. Although they might be more competitive than last year, they will not make the play-offs.

 

Fixtures

Saturday, February 25 v Lions (Free State Stadium, Bloemfontein)
Saturday, March 4 v Bulls (Free State Stadium, Bloemfontein)
Saturday, March 11 v Sunwolves (Free State Stadium, Bloemfontein)
Saturday, March 18 v Jaguares (Vélez Sarsfield, Buenos Aires)
Saturday, March 25 v Sharks (Free State Stadium, Bloemfontein)
Saturday, April 1 v Stormers (Newlands, Cape Town)
Round 7: BYE
Saturday, April 15 v Chiefs (Free State Stadium, Bloemfontein)
Saturday, April 22 v Bulls (Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria)
Saturday, April 29 v Crusaders (Free State Stadium, Bloemfontein)
Friday, May 5 v Highlanders (Free State Stadium, Bloemfontein)
Friday, May 12 v Blues (tbc)
Saturday, May 20 v Hurricanes (tbc)
Saturday, May 27 v Sunwolves (Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium, Tokyo)
Saturday, July 1 v Stormers (Free State Stadium, Bloemfontein)
Round 16: BYE
Friday, July 14 v Kings (Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, Port Elizabeth)

 

 

 

 

 

 

KINGS

 

 

Probably the best thing I can say about the benighted Kings outfit is stolen from that wonderful Welshman Max Boyce: “They ran on very well! And they wore the nicest jerseys!”

 

 

And that is about all one can say about the Kings from Port Elizabeth.

 

 

This was a team that was meant to take rugby to the people of the Eastern Cape. The rugby-starved public would flock to the stadium to watch their team take on the world. The Kings would prove the depth of talent coming out of the Eastern Cape and highlight the diversity of South African rugby players.

 

 

Well, in all cases, they did nothing of the sort. The public stayed away. Far away. That magnificent Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium can seat 46 000 spectators. Sometimes there were less than 1 000 watching the Kings go through the motions on the field.

 

 

The depth of talent promised by that arch-politico of rugby, Cheeky Watson, was also invisible The Southern Kings were walking bonus points for every other team in the competition. They did manage two wins, both at home. One against a 13-man Jaguares outfit, and the other against the equally woeful Sunwolves.

 

What then in 2017?

 

The Kings have lost a bucket load of players, who have all left town. A host of players have fled the country for some foreign currency. They are: JC Astle (Mont-de-Marsan), Philip du Preez (Mont-de-Marsan), Schalk Oelofse (Mont-de-Marsan), Steven Sykes (Oyonnax), Aidon Davis (Toulon), Jacques Engelbrecht (Montauban), James Hall (Oyonnax), Louis Fouché (Kubota Spears), Shane Gates (NTT Shining Arcs), Jaco van Tonder (Valpolicella), Jurgen Visser (NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes)

 

Once the emigrants had left, another 24 players also left the franchise for various destinations. They are: Justin Ackerman (Golden Lions), Jacobie Adriaanse (Bulls), Louis Albertse (Pumas), Tom Botha (Cheetahs), Liam Hendricks (Griquas), Sti Sithole (Lions), Vukile Sofisa (released), Martin Ferreira (Western Province), Edgar Marutlulle (Bulls), Tazz Fuzani (Pumas), Cornell Hess (released), JP Jonck (released), Junior Pokomela (Cheetahs), Leighn Eksteen (SWD Eagles), Ntando Kebe (Border Bulldogs), Kevin Luiters (Pumas), Dewald Human (Blue Bulls), Theuns Kotzé (Boland Cavaliers), Elgar Watts (Griquas), Lukhanyo Am (Sharks), JP du Plessis (released), Jeremy Ward (Sharks), Stefan Watermeyer (retired), Charles Radebe (SWD Eagles),

 

That is 35 of their 2016 squad who have left the Kings.

 

Accordingly, the Kings had to cast their net wide to find replacements, signing no less than 31 new names onto their books.

 

The new faces include some with Super Rugby experience, the likes of Ross Geldenhuys signed from the Highlanders, Louis Schreuder from the Stormers, Chris Heiberg from the Force, Neil Maritz from the Sharks and Ruaan Lerm from the Lions. Schalk van der Merwe is also back from Montpellier and Lionel Cronje finds a Super Rugby franchise again, after a season out in the cold. However, the bulk of the new signings are fresh out of Currie Cup rugby, and most from smaller unions.

 

The full list of new signings: Justin Forwood (Eastern Province Kings), Ross Geldenhuys (Highlanders), Chris Heiberg (Force), Schalk van der Merwe (Montpellier), Dayan van der Westhuizen (Blue Bulls), Tango Balekile (Eastern Province Kings), Kurt Haupt (SWD Eagles), Mike Willemse (Stormers), Irné Herbst (Bulls), Cameron Lindsay (unattached), Wandile Putuma (Griquas), Mzwanele Zito (Griquas), Christiaan de Bruin (Eastern Province Kings), Ruaan Lerm (Lions), Louis Schreuder (Stormers), Ricky Schroeder (Eastern Province Kings), Johan Steyn SWD (Eagles), Rudi van Rooyen (Griquas), Coyi Banda Border Bulldogs), Lionel Cronjé (unattached), Pieter-Steyn de Wet (Eastern Province Kings), Garrick Mattheus (Eastern Province Kings), Berton Klaasen (Eastern Province Kings), Neil Maritz (Sharks), Waylon Murray (Eastern Province Kings), Alshaun Bock (Griquas), Makazole Mapimpi Border Bulldogs), Yaw Penxe (Eastern Province Kings), Chrysander Botha (Namibia Welwitschias), Ntabeni Dukisa (Griquas), Johann Tromp (Eastern Province Kings)

 

The stark reality is that the Kings are starting 2017 with a brand-new squad. They do have some players left from the 2016 campaign, names such as Schalk Ferreira, Malcolm Jaer, CJ Velleman and Thembelani Bholi as well as Wandile Mjekevu.

 

The full Kings squad:

 

Forwards: Schalk Ferreira, Justin Forwood, Ross Geldenhuys, Chris Heiberg, Schalk van der Merwe, Dayan van der Westhuizen, Tango Balekile, Martin Bezuidenhout, Mike Willemse, Irné Herbst, Cameron Lindsay, Sintu Manjezi, Tyler Paul, Wandile Putuma, Mzwanele Zito, Thembelani Bholi, Chris Cloete, Andisa Ntsila, CJ Velleman, Stefan Willemse, , Christiaan de Bruin, Ruaan Lerm.

 

Backs: James Hall, Ricky Schroeder, Johan Steyn, Rudi van Rooyen, Coyi Banda, Lionel Cronjé, Pieter-Steyn de Wet, Garrick Mattheus, Berton Klaasen, Neil Maritz, Waylon Murray, Alshaun Bock, Ntabeni Dukisa, Siyanda Grey, Malcolm Jaer, Makazole Mapimpi, Wandile Mjekevu, Yaw Penxe, Luzuko Vulindlu, Chrysander Botha, Johann Tromp.

 

 

Prospects for 2017:

 

I cannot see the Kings doing anything to change their status as bonus point providers for their opposition. Perhaps the best news for Kings supporters? They do not have to play against any New Zealand teams in 2017.

 

Fixtures

Saturday, February 25 v Jaguares (Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, Port Elizabeth)
Saturday, March 4 v Sunwolves v Kings (Singapore National Stadium, Singapore)
Saturday, March 11 v Stormers (Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, Port Elizabeth)
Saturday, March 18 v Sharks (Kings Park, Durban)
Saturday, 25 March v Lions (Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, Port Elizabeth)
Round 6: BYE
Sunday, April 9 v Force (nib Stadium, Perth)
Saturday, April 15 v Reds (Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane)
Friday, April 21 v Waratahs (Allianz Stadium, Sydney)
Saturday, April 29 v Rebels (Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, Port Elizabeth)
Round 11: BYE
Saturday, May 13 v Sharks (Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, Port Elizabeth)
Saturday, May 20 v Brumbies (Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, Port Elizabeth)
Sunday, May 28 v Lions (Ellis Park, Johannesburg)
Friday, June 30 v Jaguares (Vélez Sarsfield, Buenos Aires)
Saturday, July 8 v Bulls (Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria)
Friday July 14 v Cheetahs (Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, Port Elizabeth)

 

 

 

 

 

 

LIONS

 

 

Finalists in 2016, the Lions will be looking forward to 2017 with a certain hint of confidence. Last year they managed to prove to the world that South Africans can play attractive rugby in the modern style, and that a happy team is a dangerous team. Yes, they suffered badly from stage fright in their first Super Rugby final and were blown away by an exceptional Hurricanes outfit, but they did make their many fans proud of the red and white jersey!

 

2017 is the year where they will need to build on their stellar performances of 2016, and it will also be the year when their opponents will be prepared!

 

Minimal player losses and a kinder fixture list will help a little!

 

In 2016 the team was structured around a useful pack of forwards. A powerful front row, combatitive second rowers, and hard tackling and physical loose forwards. Their back-line thrived on good front-foot ball with Elton Jantjies proving himself to be one of the better attacking fly halves in the world.  Helped by Faf de Klerk’s quick and long passing he had room to move, and with his forwards holding the opposition loosies in check he could unleash his considerable attacking talents. His defensive weaknesses were hidden by the fact that his team played front-foot rugby most of the year.

 

The Lions topped the 2016 Super stats table for tries scored, defenders beaten, and points scored which is tells us that South Africans can actually score tries!

 

With a bit of good fortune 2017 should be even better! They have learned how to win, they have learned how to tour, and they will have learned from their first encounter with finals rugby.

 

The Lions have not lost a great swathe of players in the off-season. Only two are heading overseas: Marnitz Boshoff has gone to Ireland to play for Connacht, while JW Bell has headed for Spain (!)

 

Others who have left are: Sampie Mastriet (released), Jacques Nel (not named), Stephan de Wit (Stormers), Ruaan Lerm (Kings), MB Lusaseni (retired), Martin Muller (released), Ramone Samuels (Stormers), Clinton Theron (Boland Cavaliers)

 

The two really big names who will not be available in 2017 are Warwick Tecklenburg, who has retired from rugby to focus on business, and front row iron man Julian Redelinghuys who is out with a neck injury and might not play again.

 

New faces in the squad are: Jean-luc Cilliers (Golden Lions), Gerrie Labuschagné (Golden Lions), Aphiwe Dyantyi (Golden Lions), Selom Gavor (Golden Lions), Dean Gordon (Golden Lions), Michael Tambwe (Golden Lions), Jarryd Sage (Golden Lions), Gerdus van der Walt (Golden Lions), Eddie Fouché (Golden Lions), Shaun Reynolds (Golden Lions), Marco Jansen van Vuren (Golden Lions), Jano Venter (Golden Lions), Hacjivah Dayimani (Golden Lions), Wiehan Jacobs (Golden Lions), Victor Sekekete (Golden Lions), Kwagga Smith (Golden Lions), Bobby de Wee (Golden Lions), JP du Preez (Golden Lions), Rhyno Herbst (Golden Lions), Marvin Orie (Bulls), Pieter Jansen (Golden Lions), Justin Ackerman (Kings), Johannes Jonker (Border Bulldogs), Sti Sithole (Kings)

 

Perhaps the two biggest names on that list are Kwagga Smith who has had some Super Rugby game time with the Lions while focusing on Sevens Rugby, and Marvin Orie who has signed from the Bulls.

 

The full Lions squad:

 

Forwards: Justin Ackerman, Ruan Ackermann, Fabian Booysen, Cyle Brink, Robbie Coetzee, Hacjivah Dayimani, Ruan Dreyer, Lourens Erasmus, Andries Ferreira, Corne Fourie, Johannes Jonker, Jaco Kriel, Robert Kruger, Malcolm Marx, Franco Mostert, Marvin Orie, Sitembiso Sithole, Kwagga Smith, Dylan Smith, Armand van der Merwe, Jacques van Rooyen, Hencus van Wyk, Warren Whiteley (c)

 

Backs: Andries Coetzee, Ruan Combrinck, Ross Cronje, Faf de Klerk, Rohan Janse van Rensburg, Elton Jantjies, Sylvain Mahuza, Lionel Mapoe, Howard Mnisi, Jacques Nel, Shaun Reynolds, Courtnall Skosan, Dillon Smit, Michael Tambwe, Jaco van der Walt, Anthony Volmink, Harold Vorster

 

The Lions season opens in Bloemfontein against the Cheetahs, then they are at home to the Waratahs before heading off to play the Jaguares and then home to host the Reds in Jo’burg. Not easy, but nothing to be scared of. If they navigate these first four fixtures without a hiccup, their season will have a solid foundation for the rest of the campaign ahead.

 

The pitfall will be that, once again thanks to the strangeness of SANZAAR’s fixture committee, the Lions do not play against a New Zealand team at all during the regular Super Rugby season. They do not get the opportunity to harden their game and sharpen their skills against the high standard of the New Zealand outfits, and that is simply crazy!

 

Prospects in 2017:

 

The Lions should dominate their side of the South African conferences quite easily. The first real challenge will probably be in the playoffs. One hopes they do not have the same problems the Stormers had last year of settling into the happiness of low intensity rugby against bottom feeders and getting blown away the first time they face heavy artillery.

 

If they can navigate the seriously deceptive waters of playing mostly bottom feeders for most of the year, the Lions could go all the way in 2017.

 

Fixtures

Saturday, February 25 v Cheetahs (Free State Stadium)
Saturday, March 4 v Waratahs (Ellis Park)
Saturday, March 11 v Jaguares (Vélez Sarsfield)
Saturday, March 18 v Reds (Ellis Park)
Saturday, March 25 v Kings (Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium)
Saturday, April 1 v Sharks (Ellis Park)
Round 6: BYE
Saturday, April 15 v Stormers (Newlands)
Friday, April 21 v Jaguares (Ellis Park)
Saturday, April 29 v Force (nib Stadium)
Saturday, May 6 v Rebels (AAMI Park)
Friday, May 12 v Brumbies (GIO Stadium)
Saturday, May 20 v Bulls (Ellis Park)
Sunday May 28 v Kings (Ellis Park)
Saturday July 1 v Sunwolves (Ellis Park)
Round 15: BYE
Saturday July 15 v Sharks (Kings Park)

 

 

 

 

SHARKS

 

 

Another South African team that must negotiate the entire regular Super Rugby season without playing against a New Zealand outfit. The stupidity of SANZAAR’s fixture list and the entire Super Rugby structure is highlighted yet again!

 

2016 was another year where the Sharks supporters started out with plenty of bravado and the confidence they always seem to have that “This will be our year! This year the Sharks will show the world how to play rugby!” The Sharks outfit tried hard, but they were not really up to the long haul. Nine wins, five losses and a draw, with just 5 bonus points gave them 43 points and 8th on the overall log.

 

Their biggest problem was in their archaic kick and chase style of playing rugby. With the silky running skills and unpredictability of someone like Willie le Roux at 15 one would have expected more running and less kicking, but it was not to be. They kicked the skin off the ball.

 

What will 2017 give us?

 

A host of players have left the Sharks. As has become a somewhat boring litany in these previews of mine, a bunch of them headed north for some foreign currency. Dale Chadwick has gone to Narbonne, Kyle Cooper to Newcastle Falcons and David McDuling has gone home to Canterbury, Tjiuee Uanivi is off to the Glasgow Warriors, Marcell Coetzee has gone to Ulster, JP Pietersen joined Leicester Tigers, Willie le Roux plays for Wasps), Paul Jordaan (to La Rochelle), and Joe Pietersen is in Japan with the Kamaishi Seawaves.

 

Other who have left are Gerhard Engelbrecht (to Griffons), Giant Mtyanda (to Sharks (Currie Cup)), Jacques Potgieter (to Bulls), Renaldo Bothma (to Bulls), Stefan Ungerer (released), Heimar Williams (retired), Wandile Mjekevu (loaned to Kings).

 

New signings, for once, do not include a host of Cheetahs. Most of the new faces come through the Sharks own development channels, with John-Hubert Meyer, Stephan Coetzee, Jean Droste, Rowan Gouws, Hanco Venter, Benhard Janse van Rensburg, Tristan Blewett, S’busiso Nkosi all elevated from the Sharks Currie Cup squad.

 

Kobus van Wyk (from Stormers), Clément Poitrenaud (from Toulouse), Jeremy Ward (from Kings), Jacques Vermeulen (from Stormers), and Lukhanyo Am (from Kings) are those from outside the Sharks own tank.

 

Sharks 45-man Super Rugby squad:

 

Forwards: Beast Mtawarira,, Chiliboy Ralepelle, Coenie Oosthuizen, Daniel du Preez, Etienne Oosthuizen, Franco Marais, Francois Kleinhans, Hyron Andrews, Jacques Vermeulen, Jean Deysel, Jean Droste, Jean-Luc du Preez, John-Hubert Meyer, Juan Schoeman, Keegan Daniel, Khaya Majola, Lourens Adriaanse, Philip van der Walt, Ruan Botha, Stephan Coetzee, Stephan Lewies, Tera Mtembu, Thomas du Toit

 

Backs: Andre Esterhuizen, Benhard Janse van Rensburg, Clement Poitrenaud, Cobus Reinach, Curwin Bosch, Garth April, Hanco Venter, Inny Radebe, Jeremy Ward, Johan Deysel, Kobus van Wyk, Lukhanyo Am, Lwazi Mvovo, Marius Louw, Michael Claassens, Odwa Ndungane, Patrick Lambie (c), Rhyno Smith, Rowan Gouws, S’bura Sithole, Sbu Nkosi, Tristan Blewett

 

The Sharks face a tough start to the season with two away games in Australia, against the Reds and the Brumbies, before coming back to South Africa for the Waratahs, Kings, Cheetahs, Lions and Jaguares before their first bye in Round 8.

 

So much of their season depends on those first two games. If they can come back from OZ with a couple of wins under their belt, they may just kick on and have some fun this year! Perhaps their most important issue will be to keep Pat Lambie fit! Without him they are not quite the same side.

 

Prospects for 2017:

 

So many old experienced heads have left, so many inexperienced youngsters on the books. I would suggest that 2017 will be Robert du Preez’s rebuilding year. He has the opportunity to weld together a very competitive outfit, and to introduce a new style of exciting rugby too.

I do not think they will make the playoffs this year, but they will give a couple of the more fancied squads a fright along the way.

 

Fixtures

Friday, February 24 v Reds (Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane)
Saturday, March 4 v Brumbies (GIO Stadium, Canberra)
Saturday, March 11 Waratahs (Kings Park, Durban)
Saturday, March 18 v Kings (Kings Park, Durban)
Saturday, March 25 v Cheetahs (Toyota Stadium, Bloemfontein)
Saturday, April 1 v Lions (Ellis Park, Johannesburg)
Saturday, April 8 v Jaguares (Kings Park, Durban)
Round 8: BYE
Saturday, April 22 v Rebels (Kings Park, Durban)
Saturday, April 29 v Jaguares (Vélez Sarsfield, Buenos Aires)
Saturday, May 6 v Force (Kings Park, Durban)
Saturday, May 13 v Kings (Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, Port Elizabeth)
Saturday, May 20 v Sunwolves (Singapore National Stadium, Singapore)
Saturday, May 27 v Stormers (Kings Park, Durban)
Saturday, June 30 v Bulls (Kings Park, Durban)
Round 16: BYE
Saturday, July 15 v Lions (Kings Park, Durban)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

STORMERS

 

 

 

Last year the Stormers players did not collect a single New Zealand entry stamp in their passports. This year they will collect three stamps, and will also play the Blues at home. It will provide them with a far sterner test than their constant diet of 2016 bottom-feeders that eventually kyboshed their chances when the playoffs came around. (Isn’t SANZAAR strange?)

 

 

Many suggest that the Stormers are perennial underachievers in the Super Rugby competition. This might be true, but then the same was said of the Hurricanes, until last year! 2016 saw glimpses of a new style of rugby from the Stormers, the dour defensive systems of Allister Coetzee’s era were abandoned, and they started to give the ball some air, running from all kinds of new angles. Their problem was in their lack of finishing skills at critical moments, and a sad lack of ball handling skills throughout the season.

 

This year they have a new skills coach, Paul Feeney, a New Zealander who brings a whole new approach to their game. With Robbie Fleck confirmed as head coach and no longer having to look over his shoulder as their “interim” coach, they may just be ready to change their somewhat haphazard handling and finishing for the better.

 

As with every other South African, Australian, or New Zealand team in Super Rugby, save for the Cheetahs, the Stormers have also lost a bunch of players to the northern hemisphere. They are: Vincent Koch (Saracens), Jean Kleyn (Munster), David Ribbans (Northampton Saints), Schalk Burger (Saracens), Nic Groom (Northampton Saints), Cornal Hendricks (Toulon), Jaco Taute (Munster)

 

Others who have left are: JP Smith (Released), Mike Willemse (Kings), Jacques Vermeulen (Sharks), Louis Schreuder (Kings), Ryno Eksteen (Cheetahs), Johnny Kotze (Bulls), Scott van Breda (Released).

 

The Stormers have also recruited 19 new players into their squad. I guess Dewald Duvenhage is not really a new player, he is returning from Perpignan and will help replace the loss of two regular scrumhalves, Nic Groom and Louis Schreuder. Seabelo Sentala is perhaps their most exciting new recruit to Super Rugby.

 

The full list of new signings includes: Caylib Oosthuizen (EP Kings), Frans van Wyk (Western Province), Martin Fereirra (Kings), Chad Solomon (Western Province), Ramone Samuels (Lions), Eduard Zandberg (Western Province), Stephan de Wit (Lions), Marnus Schoeman (Pumas), Cobus Wiese (Western Province), Juarno Augustus (Western Province), Jaco Coetzee (Western Province), Dewaldt Duvenhage (Perpignan), Damian Willemse (Western Province), Dan Kriel (Bulls), Eduan Keyter (Western Province), Seabelo Senatla (Springbok Sevens), Bjorn Basson (Bulls), Khanyo Ngcukana (Western Province), SP Marais (Bulls)

 

The full squad for 2017 is:

 

Forwards: JC Janse van Rensburg, Oli Kebble, Frans Malherbe, JP Smith, Alistair Vermaak, Wilco Louw, Bongi Mbonambi, Scarra Ntubeni, Ramone Samuels, Jan de Klerk, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Eben Etzebeth, JD Schickerling, Jurie van Vuuren, Chris van Zyl, Rynhardt Elstadt, Siya Kolisi, Sikhumbuzo Notshe, Jacques Vermeulen, Stephan de Wil, Johan du Toit, Nizaam Carr, Kobus van Dyk.

 

 

Backs: Jano Vermaak, Godlen Masimla, Justin Phillips, Kurt Coleman, Jean-Luc du Plessis, Robert du Preez, Brandon Thomson, Damian de Allende, Juan de Jongh, Dan du Plessis, Huw Jones, Dan Kriel, Dillyn Leyds, Seabelo Senatla, Scott van Breda, Kobus van Wyk, Leolin Zas, Cheslin Kolbe, EW Viljoen, SP Marais.

 

Once again, we must comment about the oddity that is the SANZAAR Super Rugby fixture list. In 2017 the Stormers will not face any Australian sides! Last year it was no New Zealanders, this year it is no Aussies. Whatever happened to the principle of the best of each country against the best of each other country?

 

Although the Stormers are probably favourites to top their pool again this year, it will much tougher if the Bulls do start using that deep pool of talent at their disposal and the Cheetahs build on their Currie Cup successes.

 

The Stormers start their season with two home games, against the Bulls and then the Jaguares, followed by an away game to the Kings, a bye, and then an away fixture against the Sunwolves before coming home to Newlands for the Cheetahs, Chiefs, and Lions before a sticky three game tour to New Zealand.

 

Prospects for 2017:

 

The Stormers should reach the playoffs again, and have told anyone that cares to listen that they want to play a fast, open style of rugby. It should be interesting, especially if that pacey back unit can keep hold of the ball at critical times. They might struggle a bit if injuries become a problem, their depth is questionable.

 

Fixtures

Saturday, 25 February v Bulls (Newlands, Cape Town)
Saturday, 4 March v Jaguares (Newlands, Cape Town)
Saturday, 11 March v Kings (Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, Port Elizabeth)
Round 4: BYE
Saturday, 25 March v Sunwolves (Singapore National Stadium, Singapore)
Saturday, 1 April v Cheetahs (Newlands, Cape Town)
Saturday, 8 April v Chiefs (Newlands, Cape Town)
Saturday, 15 April v Lions (Newlands, Cape Town)
Saturday, 22 April v Crusaders (AMI Stadium, Christchurch)
Friday, 28 April v Highlanders (Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin)
Friday, 5 May v Hurricanes (tbc)
Round 12: BYE
Friday, 19 May v Blues (Newlands, Cape Town)
Saturday, 27 May v Sharks (Kings Park, Durban)
Saturday, 1 July v Cheetahs (Free State Stadium, Bloemfontein)
Saturday, 8 July v Sunwolves (Newlands, Cape Town)
Saturday, 15 July v Bulls (Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria)

 

 

 

Argentina

 

THE JAGUARES.

 

Last year I suggested that the Jaguares could go all the way in their first season of Super Rugby. In all things but their name they were the team that reached the semi-finals of the 2015 Rugby World Cup. This was the Pumas, pretending to be another kind of cat.

 

Sadly, their discipline and focus let them down badly as they realized that Super Rugby was not club rugby in France or Italy. This was serious stuff and required strict on-field and off-field disciplines to survive. On-field they gave away more penalties than any other team, they topped the red card count, they topped the yellow card count. They played against the Kings with 13 men on the field for most of the game, and lost. They played with 14 men for most of two other games. They let themselves down, badly.

 

Will it be different in 2017? Have they learned from 2016?

 

Have no doubt that they will continue the fast, counter-attacking and predatory game that they play when wearing the blue and white hoops of Argentina.  They have the players, they have the experience, and they have the talent. They should do so much better than they have done, so far!

 

The Jaguares squad has not changed much since 2016. Just 4 players have left.  They are: Lucas González Amorosino (released), Joaquín Paz (Calvisano), Segundo Tuculet (Sevens), Felipe Arregui (Edinburgh)

 

New Signings are: Nicolás Freitas (Carrasco Polo), Santiago Álvarez (CA San Isidro), Bautista Ezcurra (Hindú), Joaquín Díaz Bonilla (Hindú), Benjamín Macome (Bayonne), Santiago Portillo (Los Tarcos)

 

The full Jaguares 44-man squad:

 

 

Forwards: Cristian Bartoloni, Santiago García Botta, Facundo Gigena, Ramiro Herrera, Lucas Noguera Paz, Enrique Pieretto, Roberto Tejerizo, Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro, Facundo Bosch, Agustín Creevy, Julián Montoya, Matías Alemanno, Juan Cruz Guillemaín, Marcos Kremer, Ignacio Larrague, Tomás Lavanini, Guido Petti, Rodrigo Báez, Facundo Isa, Juan Manuel Leguizamón, Tomás Lezana, Benjamín Macome, Pablo Matera, Javier Ortega Desio, Santiago Portillo, Leonardo Senatore

 

 

Backs: Gonzalo Bertranou, Felipe Ezcurra, Martín Landajo, Joaquín Díaz Bonilla, Nicolás Sánchez, Santiago Gonzalez Iglesias, Juan Martín Hernández, Gabriel Ascárate, Jerónimo de la Fuente, Bautista Ezcurra, Santiago Álvarez, Matías Moroni, Matías Orlando, Santiago Cordero, Manuel Montero, Emiliano Boffelli, Ramiro Moyano, Joaquín Tuculet

 

The Jaguares start 2017 with a tour to South Africa for their first fixture against the Kings and then travelling to Cape Town to play the Stormers. Afterwards they head home for three consecutive home games against  the Reds, the Sunwolves and the Western Force before coming back to South Africa to play the Sharks.

 

If they beat the Kings, and they probably will, and the Reds, the Sunwolves, and the Force they will banked four wins out of a possible 5 and that may very well set up their entire season. If they get the confidence of winning, they will be difficult to stop.

 

Prospects in 2017:

 

Much like 2016, I expect the Jaguares to go all the way to the playoffs. They have the team, the experience, and the game.

 

Fixtures

 

Saturday, February 25 v Kings (Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, Port Elizabeth)
Saturday, March 4 v Stormers (Newlands, Cape Town)
Saturday, March 11 v Lions (Vélez Sarsfield, Buenos Aires)
Saturday, March 18 v Cheetahs (Vélez Sarsfield, Buenos Aires)
Saturday, March 25 v Reds (Vélez Sarsfield, Buenos Aires)
Round 6: BYE
Saturday, April 8 v Sharks (Kings Park, Durban)
Saturday, April 15 v Bulls (Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria)
Friday, April 21 v Lions (Ellis Park, Johannesburg)
Saturday, April 29 v Sharks (Vélez Sarsfield, Buenos Aires)
Saturday, May 6 v Sunwolves (Vélez Sarsfield, Buenos Aires)
Saturday, May 13 v Force (Vélez Sarsfield, Buenos Aires)
Round 12: BYE
Saturday, May 27 v Brumbies (Vélez Sarsfield, Buenos Aires)
Friday, June 30 v Kings (Vélez Sarsfield, Buenos Aires)
Saturday, July 8 v Waratahs (Allianz Stadium, Sydney)
Friday, July 14 v Rebels (AAMI Park, Melbourne)

 

 

 

 

 

Japan

 

THE SUNWOLVES

 

I remain unconvinced about the Sunwolves participation in this competition. Essentially a team from the northern hemisphere, they are playing in a southern competition that is out of synch with their own rugby season! And then SANZAAR call them an African team! There is no logic in their participation nor in their allocation to an African conference.

 

2016 was not a great experience for the Japanese team. Just 1 win and 9 log points. Thanks mostly to three bonus points they equaled the Kings on log points earned. But that was about it. Just 292 points scored, and 627 against meant a -334 points difference. Only the Kings were worse. The Kings topped them on the log by dint of 2 wins to the Sunwolves 1.

 

Coping with travel fatigue and the demands of a very long tough season proved too much for this team of rookies.

 

2017 sees a coaching change, and a massive overhaul of the squad of players, twenty one players have left, and thirty new ones have signed up for 2017.

For the sake of completeness, here are the changes:

Players In: Kohei Asahori (from Toyota Verblitz), Heiichiro Ito (from Yamaha Júbilo), Yasuo Yamaji (from Canon Eagles), Takeshi Hino (from Yamaha Júbilo), Yusuke Niwai (from Canon Eagles), Kyosuke Kajikawa (from Toshiba Brave Lupus) Sam Wykes (from Coca-Cola Red Sparks), Willie Britz (from Cheetahs), Uwe Helu (from Yamaha Júbilo), Shunsuke Nunomaki (from Panasonic Wild Knights), Malgene Ilaua (from Toshiba Brave Lupus), Shuhei Matsuhashi (from Ricoh Black Rams), Yuhimaru Mimura (from Yamaha Júbilo), Yoshitaka Tokunaga (from Toshiba Brave Lupus), Rahboni Warren-Vosayaco (from NTT Shining Arcs), Takahiro Ogawa (from Toshiba Brave Lupus), Fumiaki Tanaka (from Highlanders), Keisuke Uchida (from Panasonic Wild Knights), Hayden Cripps (from Tokyo Gas), Jumpei Ogura (from NTT Shining Arcs), Hikaru Tamura (from Toshiba Brave Lupus), Michael Bond (from Coca-Cola Red Sparks), Timothy Lafaele (from Coca-Cola Red Sparks), Will Tupou (from Coca-Cola Red Sparks), Shota Emi (from Suntory Sungoliath), Kenki Fukuoka (from Panasonic Wild Knights), Teruya Goto (from NEC Green Rockets), Ataata Moeakiola (from Tokai University), Takaaki Nakazuru (from Suntory Sungoliath), Kotaro Matsushima (from Rebels)

Players Out: Shohei Hirano (to Panasonic Wild Knights), Shinnosuke Kakinaga (to Suntory Sungoliath), Ryuhei Arita (to Coca-Cola Red Sparks), Futoshi Mori (to Toshiba Brave Lupus), Tim Bond (released), Yoshiya Hosoda (to NEC Green Rockets), Taiyo Ando (to Toyota Verblitz) Andrew Durutalo (to USA Sevens), Tsuyoshi Murata (to NEC Green Rockets), Fa’atiga Lemalu (to Munakata Sanix Blues), Tomás Leonardi (to Leicester Tigers), Atsushi Hiwasa (to Suntory Sungoliath), Daisuke Inoue (to Kubota Spears), Tusi Pisi (to Bristol), Mifiposeti Paea (to NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes), Ryohei Yamanaka (to Kobe Steel Kobelco Steelers), Kentaro Kodama (to Rebels), Viliami Lolohea (to Tasman), John Stewart (released), Akihito Yamada (to Panasonic Wild Knights), Hajime Yamashita (to Toyota Industries Shuttles)

 

The full 2017 squad is:

 

Forwards: Keita Inagaki, Masataka Mikami, Koki Yamamoto, Takeshi Kizu, Takeshi Hino, Shota Horie, Takuma Asahara, Heiichiro Ito, Koo Jiwon, Hitoshi Ono, Kyosuke Kajikawa, Shinya Makabe, Liaki Moli, Willem Britz, Edward Quirk, Uwe Helu, Yoshitaka Tokunaga, Shuhei Matsuhashi, Malgene Ilaua, Yuhimaru Mimura.

 

 

Backs: Keisuke Uchida, Takahiro Ogawa, Fumiaki Tanaka, Kaito Shigeno, Yuki Yatomi, Harumichi Tatekawa, Hikaru Tamura, Yu Tamura, Hayden Cripps, Teruya Goto, Kenki Fukuoka, Timothy Lafaele, Derek Carpenter, Yasutaka Sasakura, Kotaro Matsushima, Riaan Viljoen.

 

Prospects for 2017:

 

There is not much I can say other than that the Sunwolves will still be the competition’s cannon fodder.

 

Fixtures

Saturday, February 25 v Hurricanes (Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium, Tokyo)
Saturday, March 4 v Kings (Singapore National Stadium, Singapore)
Saturday, March 11 v Cheetahs (Toyota Stadium, Bloemfontein)
Friday, March 17 v Bulls (Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria)
Saturday, March 25 v Stormers (Singapore National Stadium, Singapore)
Round 6: BYE
Saturday, April 8 v Bulls (Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium, Tokyo)
Friday, April 14 v Crusaders (AMI Stadium, Christchurch)
Saturday, April 22 v Highlanders (Rugby Park Stadium, Invercargill)
Saturday, April 29 v Chiefs (FMG Stadium, Waikato)
Saturday, May 6 v Jaguares (Vélez Sarsfield, Buenos Aires)
Round 12: BYE
Saturday, May 20 v Sharks (Singapore National Stadium, Singapore)
Saturday, May 27 v Cheetahs (Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium, Tokyo)
Saturday, July 1 v Lions (Ellis Park, Johannesburg)
Saturday, July 8 v Stormers (Newlands, Cape Town)
Saturday, July 15 v Blues (Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium, Tokyo)

 

 

Next Up: The Preview of the Weekend’s First Round