Why this could be SA’s year

MARK KEOHANE, in Business Day, writes, South Africa’s Super Rugby challenge will benefit from the low class June internationals against Scotland and Italy.

Australia’s players have the motivation of the British and Irish Lions – and it is showing in their Super Rugby challenge. But what is adding to their current position of strength could be their Achilles Heel three months from now.

It’s what happens after the three-Test series against the combined efforts of the United Kingdom and Ireland that will determine who wins the 2013 Super Rugby.

Outside of World Cup years this is the biggest year for Australian Rugby because the Lions tour there only every 12 years. National considerations have to trump State aspirations and the hold Australia currently has on Super Rugby, by way of the Brumbies and Reds, could change once those players return from the high of being part of the Lions series.

A year ago the Crusaders looked the team to beat going into the June internationals. They’d just started to gain momentum and the core of their side took that form into a three-nil series win against Ireland.

The Crusaders players returned mentally and physically fatigued and their form never matched their class as players and they lost out on hosting a semi-final and got beaten away from home.

The key in this competition is to play the final at home. Teams still occasionally lose at home in a semi-final but the historical exception is to win away from home.

The expanded nature of the tournament and the introduction of a Conference System and a Play-Off System has changed the dynamic of the tournament.

There is a back door in through the play-offs, as the Sharks proved last year. They got back their injured players during the break, didn’t have the disruption of losing the bulk of their side to the June Test series against England and showed the last six weeks of the tournament to be a tournament within a tournament.

The complicated and taxing nature makes it so difficult to envisage, let alone predict, just which two teams will have earned the right to play the final and just which one will have done enough to host it.

Currently there is a top three, a bottom four and eight teams who could be fourth or 11th on the table.

The Reds have deserved their winning run but they’ve yet to put together a performance that screams champions. Individual form of their Lions-series international aspirants has been at the heart of their challenge.

The Brumbies have looked world class but their defeat in Cape Town and their struggle at home against the Bulls and Kings post their South African trip showed vulnerability to fatigue and travel.

None of the New Zealand sides have shown desperation or the kind of desire we saw from the Brumbies and Reds in their 19-all draw.

And I put that down to the type of international year Dan Carter calls a ‘nothing year’.

Carter, in a weekend interview, said the year post the World Cup was important to sustain any World Cup-winning momentum and the two years leading into the World Cup were crucial in building a World Cup challenge, and if there was one year in which there seemed nothing at stake it was the second post World Cup year.

New Zealand’s players, in every franchise, are playing as if it is a nothing year, which doesn’t mean the All Blacks will play like that.

I think the nature of the Australian season, in which the focus is the Lions, and the obvious lack of interest in New Zealand after the two year high of winning a World Cup and winning every title on offer last year, gives the advantage to South Africa in Super Rugby.

It doesn’t mean a South African team will win it, but South Africa’s players have the least demanding international programme and the Bulls, in particular, have a favourable home run in to the play-offs.

The Bulls and – to a lesser degree – the Sharks have done just enough to keep in touch with the Brumbies, Reds and Chiefs, and post the international season, what seems like an okay position now could in fact be a damn good position then.

I am still not convinced of the Cheetahs as semi-finalists. Nor the Stormers. Victory in Auckland will challenge that thinking.

The Sharks, despite the courage in making a game of it in Hamilton, are losing momentum and the Bulls, indifferent at times aganst the Tahs, are gaining in momentum.

To make an informed call now is impossible. There are play-off possibilities but there aren’t yet four probabilities.

The situation of South Africa’s Super Rugby challenge offers more than it discounts because of the undemanding South African international season.

Don’t underestimate what the Lions and French will take out of our mates down south; something Scotland and Italy simply can’t match.