SA teams have hardest fight

GARETH DUNCAN writes the South African conference is the toughest in Super Rugby.

Last year, it was proven that the South African conference was the most physical in Super Rugby. Keo.co.za did a study which showed that the South African derbies had more ruck cleans and counter rucks than in the Australian equivalent, while there were also more tackles made. This statistical difference had an influence on injuries.

Looking back to the 2011 campaign logs and results, it was also proven that the South African conference was more closely contested compared to the other pools.

The Australian conference was a two-horse race, with the Reds (67 log points) and Waratahs (57 log points) holding a big gap on the third-placed Western Force (37 log points). Those teams benefited from double-round fixtures against the struggling Rebels – which saw the Reds claim two bonus-point victories while the Tahs picked up nine log points from their two wins. The New Zealand conference saw a similar scenario, with the Crusaders (61 log points) and Blues (60 log points) dominating while the Highlanders (45 log points) finished as the third best Kiwi franchise.

In the South African conference, the Stormers (63 log points), Sharks (57 log points) and Bulls (54 log points) competed in a tight race for the local top prize. Second place was only decided in the second last round, when the Sharks beat the Bulls 26-23 in Pretoria. That win secured the Durban franchise a wildcard play-off spot, which they lost against the Crusaders.

What will make this campaign even more difficult for the top South African teams is that the Bulls won’t play the Force or Hurricanes while the Sharks won’t face the Rebels. The Stormers will get to play all those teams, but centre Jean de Villiers believes the schedule will still be difficult for all local franchises.

‘Last year’s competition showed that the South African conference is the toughest,’ De Villiers told keo.co.za, ‘and it will be more competitive this season.

‘The Lions are full of confidence after winning their Currie Cup title while the Cheetahs look a dangerous side with some of their junior and senior players showing great form. The Bulls and Sharks are always quality sides, and will fight hard for first place. It’s going to be a challenging season on the South African scene.’

De Villiers also added that a successful overseas tour is crucial. The Stormers won three of their four tour league matches in 2011, while the Sharks (won two out of four) and Bulls (won one out of four) failed to achieve similar success in Australasia.

‘The important thing in the South African conference is how you do against the Australian and New Zealand teams, especially on tour. If you manage to pick up more wins than losses on the road, it will help your team have the edge over the others.’