OPINION: The big boys are back!
If history is a judge, then 2013 looks to be the year of the South Africans.
In 2007, the Bulls beat the Sharks in the final, while in 2010 the Bulls beat the Stormers in the final.
Another three years on and it could be any two of the Stormers, Bulls, Sharks or Cheetahs facing off in August.
Last weekend embarrassingly demonstrated that the might and brawn, now mixed with a tinge of rugby intellect, of the South African franchises, is too hot to handle for the under-performing New Zealanders. Fortunately, the Sharks weren't up against either the Hurricanes or the Crusaders or it could have been a blackout.
The Bulls, still with nine of the run-on players from the 2010 champion team, fairly easily accounted for a Blues team in which coach John Kirwan demonstrated his lack of a hard-nosed attitude and his ambivalence towards the Bulls by making too many changes.
No doubt this will be lesson one of plenty as Kirwan grows into the job, although one wonders why he didn't get better advice from at least two of his coaching panel.
With an attacking directness and a smashing and vigorous defence in true South African spirit, the Bulls have a formula that is hard to contain if they are on song. Now it will be interesting to follow their season and watch to see if Morne Steyn becomes the hero or the Achilles heel.
The Stormers, a team still containing 11 of the starting XV who ran on in the 2010 final, picked up their first win of the season against the Chiefs, but had previously lost to South African franchised teams.
They possess a brutal defence and an experienced crew who are just waiting to break out as winners after being finalists and semifinalists over the past three seasons.
The return of captain Schalk Burger will be eagerly anticipated and will add yet another monster roaming around and smashing up opposition as they kick their campaign in to action.
Add the Sharks to this mix - a team with a slightly more rounded game, beaten finalists last year, in the playoffs in 2011, coached by a Kiwi in John Plumtree, with match winners such as Bismarck du Plessis and Francois Steyn - and there is yet another physical, disciplined, massive lineout, penetrative running team likely to be in the final six at playoff time. The Cheetahs, who toyed with a Highlanders team in Invercargill, notoriously the deathbed of many a touring side, demonstrated that on any given day when their aggressive and swarming defence is in sync with their ball-in-hand attack, they are going to be a match for any opposition.
A year further on as they keep developing this high-tempo game, no doubt a carryover from the Orange Free State days, they will be hoping for more consistency in performance. A top-six finish will be their goal.
The size, the pace and the strength of these franchises, moulded together with physicality and now, in some cases, a more enlightened game plan, must be a concern for the New Zealand teams.
South Africans playing cleverly is surely a recipe for their success, although running directly over an opposition player will still remain an effective and well-used strategy.
The New Zealand teams need to front up and start beating them now, before their confidence grows beyond belief, otherwise there could be a long season in prospect if you are supporting anyone in New Zealand apart from the Chiefs.
Ian Snook has coached professionally for the past 25 years in New Zealand, South Africa, Australia, England, Ireland, Japan and Italy.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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