Newcomers, part-time surfers or long-time fans of this blog,
I knew that this day would come one day.
I am leaving.
Okay, let me just explain my decision.
In March 2016, just after the Super Rugby fixture at Eden Park between the Blues and the Hurricanes, I got the idea of creating a rugby blog. It was a long-time dream of mine to be honest. Something I wanted to do for many years.
I have always been a huge rugby fan. I watched my first rugby games during the Six Nations Championship 2005. I remembered Ronan O’Gara’s kick charged down in Cardiff as Wales were rampant to win the Grand Slam at their home.
Through the next years, I became really interested in that game. I was mainly watching Six Nations Championship, Champions Cup and Challenge Cup, the Top14 Final, the Summer and November Tours, and obviously the World Cup.
It was only in the mid-2010’s that I decided to give my total commitment to this wonderful game. Because I was such a big fan, I think that I watched an average of 15 games per weekend and it lasted during more than four years.
I have never been good at mathematics. However, I can be pretty confident to say that it represents more than 3,000 rugby games. I watched everything, I watched every competitions, I enjoyed some incredible emotions through it.
I remember that my favourite part of the year was from February to March. Because rugby was played all around the world, there were games from the early morning to the middle of the night. I enjoyed those big marathons.
However, I finally realised that, as much as I love this game, there is much more to life than rugby. I did not take this decision lightly but following some deep reflection, I want a new direction in my life and that is the best thing to do.
As much as I love this game, I cannot keep watching games after games, weekends after weekends, while I know that there is so much that you can do. I will still be following rugby but it will not be as accurate. It will be different.
I look back at these four years as a greatful man. I have been blessed with outstanding rugby games, high-level performances, great skills and unbelievable scenarios. It also brought me so much with universal values.
That would be pointless to rank my best rugby games ever. I just covered every rugby competition which was broadcasted. I watched everything because I was a true rugby fan and I just did not want to miss a single game during that time.
Premiership, Pro14, Top14, Premiership Rugby Cup, Champions Cup, Challenge Cup, Six Nations, Super Rugby, Rugby Championship, Pacific Nations Cup, Mitre 10 Cup, Currie Cup, World Cup, Junior World Cup, Lions, Tours, …
Nevertheless, if I had to keep just one game, here is the one that I would keep and why : Free State Cheetahs vs. Western Province. Sixth Round of the Currie Cup 2019. Let me explain why I would keep that game and not another one.
The game was taking place at Free State Stadium, in Bloemfontein. The Free State Cheetahs were playing at home and were qualified for the Currie Cup play-offs before the start of the game. The sixth Round was obviously the last Round.
The Free State Cheetahs could not handle the pressure of the Western Province in the first-half, filled by numerous Springboks. The Free State Cheetahs were trailing by 18 points at the interval (10-28) and they were also virtually out.
The beginning of the second-half was even more terrible with the Free State Cheetahs now trailing by 23 points (10-33). With half an hour to go, the Free State Cheetahs were going to stage one of the greatest comebacks in History.
They scored four tries for 28 unanswered points to get a 5-point caution. On the last play of the game, the Western Province put immense pressure on the Free State Cheetahs try line. They did not surrender. They even counter-rucked.
As soon as the ball left the field of play with Marius van der Westhuizen blowing his whistle, the crowd lifted and gave a great cheer to their local heroes. The Free State Cheetahs coach, Franco Smith, was also very emotional in his box.
That was THE moment when the Free State Cheetahs won the Currie Cup. In 30 minutes, they went from out of the Currie Cup to top of the table. Two weeks later, after some great play-offs, the Free State Cheetahs won the Currie Cup.
I chose that game because of the symbol. For me, the symbol is stronger than the result. Had I choose the result, I probably would have gone for the Currie Cup Finals in 2016 or in 2019 when the Free State Cheetahs ruled the league.
These kind of memories will be over now. It is obviously very tough for me but like I said, you have to make the big decisions sometimes in your life. It has been one hell of a journey but even the good things must come to an end.
That is fair to say that it has been an enjoyable four years. That was very fun, every day, to get the news, go into the build-up for the big games. I followed the development of great players from the grassroots to the superstar status.
For example, and I have no evidence to give you, but the first ever Super Rugby game that I watched was in May, 2014. The Hurricanes were hosting the Chiefs at Westpac Stadium, Wellington. There was the heat for the play-offs battle.
That day, for the Hurricanes, was playing at first five-eighth a guy named Beauden Barrett. I did not know him well. I watched him play and I said to myself : “One day, this guy will be crowned World Rugby Player Of The Year”.
In fact, on that blog, you can find three kinds of rugby articles. Rugby reviews which gives you a short summary of most of the games I watched through the years, features on clubs and the game and Beauden Barrett’s career articles.
Like I said, I will keep following rugby and all the competitions, North and South, but it will not be as accurate as what it used to be. I think that I will still watch a few games but it will be more like a few games per year, so a real drop.
There will never ever be more articles published on the blog. That is the last one. The 387th article will be my last. However, I wanted to share with you two drafts that I wrote and that I never published for some various reasons.
The first one was about the Super Rugby re-building in 2017 with the Southern Kings, the Free State Cheetahs and the Western Province dropped for financial reasons. I really was disappointed by that move. That was just unacceptable.
The second one was about the Super Rugby preview for the 2020 season. It was a preview, franchise by franchise. It was about giving informations about the momentum, the coaching staff, the player resources and the expectations.
I am a huge fan of the Southern Hemisphere. Well, I am not here to start an argument, mostly because that is my last article, but I have always thought that the Northern Hemisphere was unfair with their Southern counterparts.
We hear for decades that New Zealand is poaching Pacific Islanders, for example. Meanwhile, all the clubs in the Northern Hemisphere, have at least one player who played Super Rugby in past days. Who has got it right ?
New Zealand strengthened their national side but their federation put the money to raise these players while their clubs are struggling. In North, clubs are stronger and when their federations are poaching talents, they don’t spend.
I will never say that North is weaker than South. I just think that South play the game like it should be played. New Zealand, South Africa and Australia are not as rich as the countries in the North but they have someting that North has not.
That is called extra soul. Since 1987, there were 9 World Cups which took place. South won 8 of them. North won 1. You could clearly witness it during the last World Cup Final, in 2019, in Japan when South Africa defeated England.
Because the Southern Hemisphere countries are poorer and are going through tough times, their players know that and get that extra soul. It may sound rubbish but that is my opinion and you have got the right to disagree.
On another note, I have never understood the lack of respect towards the Haka. You do not boo it, you do not even try to respond to it on the field. Okay, that is the challenge but you can still rise to it standing up, watching and enjoying it.
Anyway, it has been four unforgettable years. I will still be around and I will keep following what happens in the oval world. I will surely be there for the next World Cup as the global showpiece of 2023 will be held in my country.
Rugby will always hold a special place in my life. It made me a greater person. It sometimes was my only refuge. The only place in the world where I was accepted for who I was with no people judging me for the person that I was.
Rugby gives you the values that you want to fight for. That game is all about passion, pride, loyalty, respect, brotherhood and so much more. The guard of honor is probably the greatest symbol of what rugby can bring to the world.
If I am not mistaken, rugby is the only sport in the world with the guard of honor being a code. At the end of each game, there is the guard of honor from both sides paying tribute to each other. That always was my favourite moment.
You are entitled to follow the legacy of that blog. If you are interested, or if that article pleased you, do not hesitate to drop a mail or a comment. I will keep checking and answering, remembering the four incredible years of the past.
Thanks to all the rugby community for these four years.
The Year 2019 has been an incredible moment for South Africa and for many reasons. First of all, at Super Rugby level, there was the resurgence of a former Springbok powerhouse franchise : the Bulls.
They had a brillant campaign in the Southern Hemisphere, falling short in Quarter-Finals, in Wellington. Meanwhile, the Currie Cup which followed delivered a high level of competitiveness.
The Free State Cheetahs were crowned thanks to the talismanic coach Franco Smith. In 2007, when the Springboks last won the World Cup, the Free State Cheetahs had won the Currie Cup the same year.
Definitely, it was a good omen as South Africa won the 2019 World Cup in Japan. It was a scintillating performance through that journey. The Springboks won their 3rd World Cup Title, after 1995 and 2007.
South Africa are now joint with New Zealand for most World Cups won. They are also the only World Cup winning nation to never lose a World Cup Final. Starting in June, 2018, Rassie Erasmus is a Genius.
The Article’s Goal : Let’s review the Cheetahs’ first part of the 2019-2020 Pro14 season and preview the next year. Also, there will be throwbacks to the two Currie Cup wins in the past few years (2016 and 2019).
PART I : THE CHEETAHS IN THE CURRENT PRO14 SEASON
1) Ambitions for the new Pro14 campaign
The Cheetahs opened their 3rd Pro14 season in October, 2019. The start of the competition was delayed due to the World Cup taking place in Japan. The Cheetahs were carrying some momentum.
They were obviously crowned Currie Cup kings the month before. They also wanted to replicate what they had done during their first season, in 2017-2018, when they reached the play-offs.
The next season was not so cool with the Cheetahs unable to find form. The first two seasons were not easy as the Currie Cup overlapped with the Pro14. The Cheetahs had to field two sides a week.
2) Outstanding first block of home games
The Cheetahs started the Pro14 season with three home games in Bloemfontein. Initially set to go after the Currie Cup win, talismanic coach Franco Smith decided to remain for the three games.
The Bloemfontein-based franchise kicked off the new season with the Glasgow Warriors coming to town. Two Irish provinces followed with Ulster and Munster also facing the franchise.
The Cheetahs produced three performances of high-quality with three bonus point wins. Back-three players Anthony Volmink and Rhyno Smith lit up the competition with stunning scores.
3) Adapting to the Northern Hemisphere conditions
Following the first three games, the Cheetahs had four away games before the end-of-year break. It started in Galway as a red card to Dries Swanepoel did not allow them to get another win.
The next three games were against Welsh provinces. The Cheetahs came up short against the Scarlets. However, another red card to Jasper Wiese dashed their hopes against the Cardiff Blues.
For their last fixture before the break, the Cheetahs were facing the Ospreys, in Neath. The franchise held on until the very last play as they made the turnover at the maul to clinch a valuable win.
4) What is next for the Cheetahs ?
Franco Smith left the Cheetahs after the first three games to become the Italy interim coach. He has been replaced by Hawies Fourie who knows the team well, having been an assistant coach for years.
Despite their limited resources, the Cheetahs are still managing to recruit some new talents even if most players are loaned. However, they are still third on their conference with two games in hand.
The target would be keeping that third place to qualify for the play-offs. Second place could be possible. The Cheetahs are facing Zebre, the franchise from Parma, in Italy, before a raft of home games.
5) The Cheetahs squad : What is the best XV ?
THE CURRENT SQUAD :
Hookers : Wilmar Arnoldi*, Joseph Dweba, Marnus van der Merwe, Reinach Venter
Props : Johan Coetzee, Luan de Bruin, Erich de Jager, Neethling Fouché*, Gunther Jansé van Vuuren, Charles Marais, Kwezi Mona*, Ox Nché*, Boan Venter
Locks : Justin Basson, JP du Preez, Sintu Manjezi, Walt Steenkamp
Flankers : Aidon Davis, Daniel Maartens, Chris Massyn*, Teboho Mohojé, Gerhard Olivier, Junior Pokomela, Jasper Wiese
Note : The two parts about the Currie Cup wins will be treated in five points : the background (1), the format of the competition (2), the Cheetahs journey (3), the players which stood out (4) and what it meant (5).
1) Competition Background
In 2016, it was the 78th edition of the Currie Cup and the Golden Lions from Johannesburg were the defending Champions. The year 2016 was marked, by the way, by their Super Rugby domination.
The Lions reached the final where they were beaten by the Hurricanes in Johnnesburg. They were obviously the huge favourites for the new Currie Cup edition and were targeting a potential double.
Meanwhile, the Free State Cheetahs were coming from a not so bad Super Rugby campaign. That was an average campaign but the Free State Cheetahs already had the talent to win their 5th Title.
2) The Currie Cup Format for Year 2016
The Currie Cup is a very old competition and probably the oldest rugby competition in the World. His format always required some adjustments every year if it is needed for the competition.
The SARU (South Africa Rugby Union), back in 2016, gave his agreement to have 9 provinces involved in the Currie Cup Premier Division. The first four provinces would qualify for the play-offs.
It meant that the 9 provinces involved in the Currie Cup were : Blue Bulls, Boland Cavaliers, Eastern Province Kings, Free State Cheetahs, Golden Lions, Griquas, Pumas, Sharks and Western Province.
3) The Cheetahs Journey
The Free State Cheetahs opened with a thrilling away win against Boland Cavaliers. They won at home against the Blue Bulls before snatching an away win against the Western Province.
They had the bye in Round 4. After that, they enjoyed a great game against the Eastern Province Kings. They won away in Durban against the Sharks and remained unbeaten against the Lions.
The Free State Cheetahs had the win against the Pumas and won well against the Griquas. They defeated the Golden Lions in semi-final and won the Final against the Blue Bulls, in Bloemfontein.
4) The Players Who Stood Out
So many players sood out for the Free State Cheetahs. Fred Zeilinga was outstanding with his goalkicking. He built key away wins against the Boland Cavaliers and the Western Province.
The forwards, including back-rowers Paul Schoeman and Henco Venter, were outstanding, winning a few penalty tries. The backline racked up the tries with many significant performances.
Centre Nico Lee had a brace against the Eastern Province Kings. Winger Sergeal Petersen got a Hat-Trick in the semi-finals while Raymond Rhule was also a regular try scorer during the campaign.
5) What did it mean at the time ?
That Currie Cup win was massive for the Free State Cheetahs. It was the first Currie Cup in a decade as their last win before that was in 2007. It hugely restored the belief in Bloemfontein.
Free State Cheetahs remaining unbeaten through the whole competition showed that they were able to compete. They could match all the provinces in South Africa, home and away.
There was the idea that the Free State Cheetahs could rise at Super Rugby level. Unfortunately, there were not given enough time and they were kicked out of the competition the year after, in 2017.
PART III : THROWBACK TO THE CURRIE CUP WIN (MMXIX)
1) Competition Background
The Currie Cup 2019 definitely was an unpredictable competition. The last two editions had seen the two same provinces competing in the Final. Each time, the province which was playing away won it.
In fact, in 2018, the Sharks had won in Cape Town against Western Province. The year before, in 2017, it was the Western Province who had delivered a huge performance, winning in Durban.
As for the Cheetahs, they could not defend their Title in 2017. They did not have a chance in 2018 either. They even had to play a promotion-relegation game against the Griffons to remain in the elite.
2) The Currie Cup Format for Year 2019
As said before, the Currie Cup format can change from a year to another according to what the SARU (South Africa Rugby Union) decides. For 2019, there were the historic 7 franchises involved.
Compared to 2016, the Eastern Province Kings and the Boland Cavaliers were relegated. It meant that each province would play against each other, either home or away, with play-offs remaining.
The schedule was much more favourable to the Free State Cheetahs. The Currie Cup started early due to the World Cup. It meant that the Pro14 would not be played at the same time, for 2019.
3) The Cheetahs Journey
The Free State Cheetahs had the bye weekend, in Round 1. They began their campaign in Round 2 with a bonus point away win against the Blue Bulls. They carried their form against the Griquas.
In Round 3, they host the Golden Lions and lost as they turned down kickable penalties to go for the tries. They lost in the last moments against the Sharks but fought back to the win against Pumas.
For the last Round, the Free State Cheetahs snatched a huge comeback win against Western Province. It was the same against the Sharks in semi-final. They won the final against the Golden Lions.
4) The Players Who Stood Out
Centre Benhard Jansé van Rensburg got two braces during away wins in Pretoria and Nelspruit, against the Blue Bulls and the Pumas, respectively. Hooker Joseph Dweba was also a talismanic figure.
He scored during almost all the Currie Cup games. Winger William Small-Smith grabbed a few tries as well, including the memorable one he scored in the Final. Prop Ox Nché, another popular figure, did the job.
We could also mention Tian Meyer, who played winger, to accomodate Ruan Pienaar at scrum-half. Henco Venter, Junior Pokomela, Tian Schoeman and Clayton Blommetjies were great.
5) What did it mean at the time ?
It was another moment of History for the Free State. The Free State Stadium was filled with 43,000+ people. It was a moment of joy and friendship between the players, the coaches and the fans.
It was the 6th Currie Cup Trophy for the Cheetahs and the second in only four years. Given the limited resources and the inability to compete in the two previous editions, that is such an achievement.
That win was a decent farewell for coach Franco Smith who had given a decade to the Free State. It also built the hype around the Cheetahs to come back to the Pro14 play-offs for the year 2020.
PART IV : THE TWO MATCHDAY SQUADS WHO LIFTED THE CURRIE CUP
Note : Part of the throwback, here are the two matchday squads who lifted the Currie Cup, in 2016 and in 2019. A little comment for each player will be added to pay tribute to what they have achieved.
1) The Matchday Squad of 2016
(15-1) Blommetjies – Petersen – F. Venter (C) – Lee – Rhule – N. Marais – S. Venter – Jordaan – Cassiem – Schoeman – Hugo – Basson – Coetzee – van Jaarsveld – C. Marais
(16-23) : du Toit – Nche – Koster – H. Venter – Meyer – Zeilinga – Benjamin – van Vuuren
STARTING XV :
15. Clayton Blommetjies : Playing mostly at fullback even if he can be a winger, if needed, he has been a brillant rugby player. Enjoying the counter-attacking play, he set up many tries for his team.
14. Sergeal Petersen : Incredibly gifted winger, he has been one of the highest try scorers for the Free State Cheetahs. With so much pace, he has beat many defenders during the campaign.
13. François Venter : Skipper for the Free State Cheetahs, he has led the team by example. Strong carrier with the ball in hand, he won the metres and also scored a few tries. Inspiring player.
12. Nico Lee : Very strong centre, he was not bad in defence either. Making the tackles, his role in defence has always been underestimated. He fit in the team well and was never shy of an effort.
11. Raymond Rhule : Outstanding player, he was in scintillating form through all the campaign. Very quick, he could offload as well and he was a great finisher. He was a key player of the team.
10. Niel Marais : The fly-half started the campaign as a replacement but finished it as a starter. Excellent goalkicker, his game management was second to none. He was a very good tactician.
09. Shaun Venter : Very good scrum-half, his attacking mindset meant that the Free State Cheetahs scored many tries. His passing lines were accurate and were a good platform for his teammates.
08. Neill Jordaan : Uncompromising number 8 who can also play flanker if needed, he played his part. He ran down Piet van Zyl in the Final in a try-saving tackle which proved to be a turning point.
07. Uzair Cassiem : Clever flanker, he was a key part of the Free State Cheetahs scrum. His work rate on the field was obviously very high and his lineout knowledge helped the team a lot.
06. Paul Schoeman : One of the unsung heroes, his part and his work in that campaign has been important. He set up a lot of mauls, pushed hard at scrum and tackled his opponents well.
05. Reniel Hugo : One of the two starting second-rowers of the province. His commitment at the lineout combinations was key. He called the tricks and his defence was excellent through the campaign.
04. Justin Basson : In a similar way that his teammate playing the same position, his role at the lineout was key. His scrummaging was also excellent and he has always led by example on the pitch.
03. Aranos Coetzee : Powerful prop, he won a lot of penalties at scrum time. Very good at tackling, he maintained very high standards. His workrate at the maul as well cannot be underestimated.
02. Torsten van Jaarsveld : Very strong forward, his lineout throws were accurate. It allowed the Free State Cheetahs to get a platform to score tries. Showing a lot of power, he was a key figure for the team.
01. Charles Marais : Strong prop as well, his scrummaging was one of the best in the competition. He brought a lot of strength at the core of the team. He was a great addition to the forwards pack.
16. Jacques du Toit : Replacement hooker, he was considered as an impact player for the campaign. Able to throw at the lineout, his scrummagining was never diminishing the Free State Cheetahs.
17. Ox Nché : Already a popular figure at the time, the young prop was considered as the future of South Africa. He started on the bench and came on later to make the good impact.
18. Armandt Koster : Replacement second-rower, he was part of the players who always gave everything. He did not play a lot for the team but he was always committed to the Currie Cup.
19. Henco Venter : Another promising player at the time, the back-rower was a versatile prospect. Flanker or number 8, he remained very strong at scrum time and his carrying was excellent.
20. Tian Meyer : Facing a stern competition in the squad for a start at scrum-half, his professionalism was what you could expect. Putting the team first, his impact on the field was exceptional.
21. Fred Zeilinga : Started the competition as the main fly-half. He was on the bench for the Final but remained one of the key players. Excellent goalkicker, he set up a try during the Final.
22. Rayno Benjamin : Hugely talented player, he could play everywhere in the backline. Mostly used as an utility back player, his contribution to that campaign was of the highest quality.
23. Conraad van Vuuren : The other prop replacement, his work at scrum time was not too bad. Not often penalised, he always delivered for the team and deserved a huge amount of credit as well.
(16-23) du Toit – Marais – R. Venter – du Preez – Wiese – Nonkontwana – Fouché – Adonis
STARTING XV :
15. Clayton Blommetjies : Part of the Currie Cup success in 2016, he maintained high standards of excellence three years later. Scoring key tries, his attacking threat was the edge to the province.
14. William Small-Smith : Outstanding player, the speedster was one of the highest try scorers in the Currie Cup. His 50-metre try scored in the Final will leave forever in Bloemfontein.
13. Benhard Jansé van Rensburg : Definitely one of the unsung heroes. Getting a brace in the away win in Pretoria, he was one of the commanding player in the centre. His role was paramount.
12. Dries Swanepoel : Powerful centre, his carrying ball in hand was very powerful. His defence cannot be underestimated as he brought an edge in defence with more structure to the team.
11. Tian Meyer : One of the very few players to have won the Currie Cup in 2016, he started the campaign at scrum-half. He ended up playing brillantly on the wing to accomodate Ruan Pienaar.
10. Tian Schoeman : Part of the losing side with the Blue Bulls during the Currie Cup 2016, Tian Schoeman played brillantly. His goalkicking was great and his attacking skills were outstanding.
09. Ruan Pienaar : World Cup winner in 2007, he came back in the Free State. First used as an impact player, he earned his place and masterminded the team to another Currie Cup Triumph.
08. Henco Venter : Part of the Currie Cup 2016 winning brigade, he earned his starting spot at number 8 and had a huge impact. He brough power, physicality and passion to the Free State Cheetahs.
07. Junior Pokomela : Promising talent coming from the academy, he quickly delivered good performances on the pitch. Very good scrummager, he was also key on the powerful maul drives.
06. Gerhardt Olivier : Very good flanker, he made many key turnovers through the campaign. He was equally brillant at scrum time and at lineout time. One of the true unsung heroes of the province.
05. Walt Steenkamp : Outstanding second-rower, his calls at the lineout ensured that the Free State Cheetahs had a decent attacking platform. He made many tackles in defence and his efforts were great.
04. Sintu Manjezi : Another interesting prospect coming through the academy, he was part of the lineout magic around the team. He always gave his everything and managed to earn the respect.
03. Eric de Jager : Very powerful prop, his scrummaging was never a liability for the Free State Cheetahs. He brought some strength and physicality to the starting side and delivered on the pitch.
02. Joseph Dweba : A popular and talismanic figure, he was a crowd favourite from the start. His commitment has always been outstanding and his passion was everything to the Free State Cheetahs.
01. Ox Nché : Another popular figure in Bloemfontein, he was on the bench for the Currie Cup win in 2016. He won so many scrum penalties for his team. His carrying style was incredible and made him famous.
16. Jacques du Toit : Already on the bench for the Currie Cup win in 2016, he was again on the bench three years later. Not a sign of stagnation, he was used again as an impact player and delivered.
17. Charles Marais : Part of the Currie Cup win in 2016, he went from starter to bench player given the rise of a few academy players. Though, he still retained a place in the starting XV, showing his talent.
18. Reinach Venter : The other replacement prop, his commitment to the Free State Cheetahs was what you could expect. He scrummaged very well and had a good impact off the bench for the province.
19. JP du Preez : Replacement in the second-row, he started a few games during the campaign. Used as a bench player in the Final, he played his part and deserved some credit for his contribution.
20. Jasper Wiese : Inspiring player, he always put the team first before his personal situation. Versatile, able to play flanker or number 8, he was a true player and an outstanding rugbyman.
21. Abonghile Nonkontwana : Recruited from the Blue Bulls, he came in Bloemfontein with plenty of hope. Promising player, he had a physical impact on the side during all the campaign.
22. Louis Fouché : In competition for the fly-half berth, he never put a foot wrong. Each of his contributions which were mostly off the bench were valuable. His goalkicking was excellent.
23. Darren Adonis : Another promising player having come through the academy, he had limited but precious game time. He scored a key try against the Blue Bulls. He did well for the team.
* In total, there are 6 players who played in both Currie Cup Finals wins : 4 forwards (Ox Nché, Henco Venter, Jacques du Toit, Charles Marais) and 2 backs (Tian Meyer, Clayton Blommetjies).
* Fullback Clayton Blommetjies was the only player to start the two Currie Cup Finals. Also, the hooker Jacques du Toit was the only player to start the two Currie Cup Finals on the bench.
* Three players were promoted from the bench to the starting XV between the two Currie Cup Finals : prop Ox Nché, back-rower Henco Venter and scrum-half Tian Meyer, who can also play on the wing.
* Prop Charles Marais is the only player to have dropped from the starting XV to the bench between the two Currie Cup Finals. It can be explained by the spectacular rise of prop Ox Nché.
The Free State Cheetahs have got a decent chance of performing during the second-half of the Pro14 season. They will be targeting the play-offs for the second time on only three seasons.
They achieved so much in the last few years such as the two Currie Cup wins, in 2016 and in 2019. The province does not have much budget, have to recruit loaned players but they have got the passion.
Talismanic coach Franco Smith has now left the Free State but he left an incredible legacy. The squad is pretty strong as there are a few players who were part of the Currie Cup wins in the last few years.
The Free State Cheetahs received many nominations at the South Africa Rugby Awards. The province is nominated for Team Of The Year. Franco Smith will try to get the Coach Of The Year Award.
Finally, Joseph Dweba and Ox Nché are nominated for the Currie Cup Player Of the Year. That is interesting times for the Free State Cheetahs who will keep building their legacy with passion.
“So much success woud not have been possible without Franco Smith”
The Free State Cheetahs won the Currie Cup for the year 2019. They won it in an incredible final staged at their home of Bloemfontein. It was their 6th Currie Cup after their last Trophy, in 2016.
This Currie Cup comes to acknowledge the outstanding work which has been done over the years in the Free State. It was all about the passion and leaving a legacy. This Trophy means everything.
All of this would not have been possible without a man : Franco Smith. Leaving the Free State Cheetahs, it was an unbelievable farewell for this leader who always gave everything to the cause.
THE FREE STATE CHEETAHS CURRIE CUP JOURNEY
I- Background (From 2018-2019 Pro14 season)
A) Building a good side again
The Free State Cheetahs qualified for the Pro14 play-offs during their first ever season back during the 2017-2018 season. However, they could not replicate that during their second season.
The province had lost many players such as back-rower Uzair Cassiem and centre Francois Venter. The coaching staff had to re-build a competitive side and obviously, it took time to achieve that.
The structures in the province were there but it was not enough. The Free State Cheetahs were relying on their academy players. They lacked experience and game time so it was not easy.
B) Two competitions at the same time
During that 2018-2019 season, the Free State Cheetahs were definitely not helped by the schedules. From mid-September to end-October, the Currie Cup and the Pro14 were taking place in the same time.
It meant that the Free State Cheetahs had to field two different sides every weekend for about two months. It was a big challenge as the players’ ressources were not big enough to compete well.
The Free State Cheetahs had a dismal Currie Cup 2018. They finished last and played the promotion-relegation game against the Griffons in Bloemfontein. They saved their spot, though.
C) Disappointing Pro14 season
The 2018-2019 Pro14 season was really tough for the Free State Cheetahs. Their home record did not remain so flash with tough losses (Glasgow, Munster) even if they snatched the draw against Ulster.
They also lost at home against Connacht while they had all the difficulties to dispatch Benetton Treviso on their turf. The three derbies against the Southern Kings were not so quality as well.
The Free State Cheetahs won on the last play away from home before performing well at home. However, the overall away record was terrible with big losses (Leinster and Edinburgh).
II- The 2019 Currie Cup
A) Flash Start
The Free State Cheetahs had the bye weekend in Round 1. It gave them extra time to work on their conditionning. For their first fixture, they were playing the Blue Bulls at Loftus Versfeld, in Pretoria.
They showed a promising display with centre Benhard Jansé van Rensburg clinching a brace. They were solid on defence, made the turnovers and Tian Meyer was instrumental in the scrum-half position.
For their second fixture, in Round 3, it was another bonus point win against the Griquas in Bloemfontein. The Free State Cheetahs scored 68 points and plenty of tries in a dazzling display from the home side.
B) Troubled Times
Nevertheless, after that frenetic start, the Free State Cheetahs suddenly found themselves under pressure. In Round 4, against the Golden Lions, they butchered so many try-scoring opportunities.
They finally lost the fixture as the gameplan needed adjustements. One week later, the Free State Cheetahs were in Durban to face the Sharks. Once again, small inaccuracies let them down, really.
The Free State Cheetahs controversially had a try ruled out for obstruction. In a position to win the game as it was all square, the province surrendered possession and conceded a try on the last play.
C) Momentum Shifting
The Free State Cheetahs were not out of the competition despite these two losses. Franco Smith brought Ruan Pienaar to the starting XV to face the Pumas in Kimberley. It proved to be a great call.
The Bloemfontein-based province ran the ball well. Louis Fouché, deputising for the injured Tian Schoeman, did the job. Jospeh Dweba had a decent game and it was a 15-point comeback win.
They carried that form home in the last Round. In an oustanding display, trailing Western Province by 21 points, they scored 26 unanswered points and held their lines to top the table.
Having topped the Currie Cup standings, the Free State Cheetahs were going to get the home advantage. In the semi-final, they hosted the Sharks who proved to be decent opposition for the home side.
Once again, the Free State Cheetahs kept their cool and blitzed the Sharks in the second-half, scoring 41 points. It meant that the Bloemfontein-based province were going to host the Currie Cup Final.
The Free State Cheetahs began well and William Small-Smith’s 50-metre individual try set the tone. The Free State Cheetahs brought the defence to deny the Lions comeback and deservedly win it.
III- Tribute To The Free State Cheetahs
A) The Players : Forwards Pack
This Currie Cup 2019 will definitely leave a legacy in the Free State. First of all, the congratulations must go to the players. They have showed passion and wanted to go in the legend and achieve greatness.
The forwards pack stood up. Hooker Joseph Dweba was the leading try-scorer in the competition with 7 tries. Prop Ox Nche was a popular figure and has been absolutely everywhere on the pitch.
Sintu Majezi is also promising in the second-row. He was well supported by Walt Steenkamp. The back-row was a cohesive unit with Abonghile Nonkontwana, Junior Pokomela and Henco Venter.
B) The Players : Backline
The Free State Cheetahs backline was outstanding. Tian Meyer did well at scrum-half before switching to the wing. It allowed Ruan Pienaar to show his world-class game at the Free State Stadium.
Playmaker Tian Schoeman led by example with Louis Fouché rising up as a decent back-up. In the centres, Dries Swanepoel carried relentlessly while Benhard Jansé van Rensburg put his body on the line.
Finally, the back-three had class. William Small-Smith was smart on his wing. Clayton Blommetjies entertained the home crowd with his runs. Darren Adonis did nothing wrong in his few games.
C) Franco Smith
If the players deserve huge credit, the coaching staff also deserves an equal one. The coaching staff have been brillant but ultimately, one man really has to be thanked forever : Franco Smith.
Franco Smith worked with the province in the last decade. He built a strong squad of players based on grassroots and love for the jersey. He put structures in place and developped the academy.
He also built a gameplan based on pure attacking rugby and organisation in defence. It was fitness-demanding but it allowed Franco Smith to build his legacy. He is at the core of the two Currie Cup Titles.
D) The Crowd
In all competitions, the crowd is always playing a massive part in the equation. The Free State Cheetahs fed off their incredible and generous crowd during all the Currie Cup campaign.
The Free State Cheetahs entertained their fans for the first home game against the Griquas and the 68 points scored. The Golden Lions fixture was disappointment but it was all forgotten.
The crowd gave the players a standing ovation at the final whistle of the Western Province fixture. The support and the passion was the difference in both second-halfs of the semi-final and Final.
IV- The Future
A) Building Again
The Free State Cheetahs have always been a classy outfit. Their main problem has always been their players’ retention. Their key players are always leaving for bigger Super Rugby franchises.
The Free State Cheetahs will not be able to rely on the likes of Ox Nche and Henco Venter, moving to the Sharks. Abonghile Nonkontwana will also come back at the Bulls for the next season.
It just underlines the on-going challenge that the Free State Cheetahs are facing. Nevertheless, there is definitely enough talent in the academies to cope with these legends leaving the province.
B) Targeting the Pro14 play-offs
Given what the Free State Cheetahs have achieved, winning the Currie Cup for the second time in only four years, their goals have to be high. They definitely must target the Pro14 play-offs.
The Free State Cheetahs will get a few weeks rest before the start of the 2018-2019 Pro14 season. The players will have to be managed but fitness and gametime will definitely not be a problem.
The Free State Cheetahs must keep their home record unbeaten. Then, if they manage to rack a few away wins or even pick up the bonus points, they should be in a good position to qualify.
C) The Legacy
The Free State Cheetahs will also target building a legacy, like the one that they built off the 2016 Currie Cup to clinch another one. It might be tough if the schedules are not remaining so kind for them.
It is not sure whether the Currie Cup format will change. However, with no World Cup next year, the Currie Cup could get more Rounds and so be played at the same time than the Pro14 again.
With Franco Smith leaving to coach Italy, the province will have to make sure that it is a smooth transition. The coaching staff and the players will go again and play for that jersey so that the legend continues.
The Free State Cheetahs were a bit lost at the end of the last year after a tough Pro14 campaign with schedules not helping them. All the province targeted the Currie Cup for that year 2019.
They timed their run perfectly as they won some memorable ties. They won the Currie Cup in Bloemfontein with a crowd in joy. The players all delivered and the coaching staff definitely played their part.
The Free State Cheetahs will now try to build on that legacy. No doubt that they won Respect. So much success over the last few years would not have been possible without Franco Smith.
“Thanks for the memories, Franco. You are a legend”
Year 2019 is not an usual year in rugby union because it is a World Cup year. It is time to make a first assessment about the Southern Hemisphere season. The Super Rugby regular season is now over so this is an opportunity to analyse what happened this year.
Besides, the Southern Hemisphere nations will shortly begin their preparations for the upcoming World Cup. It is already a good moment of the year to assess the four southern powerhouses’ form. The respective coaches have several months to build the gameplan.
Moreover, while the South will be in World Cup mode, the provincial competitions will also take place. That is disappointed to have those played during the World Cup as it deserved the best players. However, it still is the evidence of the south’s bright future.
PART I : SUPER RUGBY – WHAT WE LEARNT THIS SEASON
1) New Zealand : Business as usual or a bit of a slip ?
The Super Rugby play-offs shows, like the previous seasons, four New Zealand franchises qualified : the Crusaders, the Hurricanes, the Chiefs and the Highlanders. You could think, introduced that way, that the Kiwi franchises remain dominant in Super Rugby.
Actually, it is more complicated than that. First of all, the Crusaders, compared to last season, were defeated. They lost away to the Waratahs and the Chiefs while they had to settle for a home draw against the Sharks. Their form has not been flash all season.
About the Hurricanes, they won more games than the Crusaders. Though, it must be noted that their home defeat to the Jaguares was their first home loss to a franchise which is based outside of New Zealand since 2015. This was not just a game in that point.
Finally, the Chiefs and the Highlanders qualified in the last Round. The Chiefs started the season without a single win in 5 games, including a home defeat against the Sunwolves. The Highlanders only won 6 games, drew 3 times and lost their 2 games in South Africa.
All of that means that it would be wrong to say that New Zealand does not remain a force in Super Rugby. However, it would be also wrong to say that New Zealand franchises are as dominating as the previous seasons. Clearly, there is no gap anymore in Super Rugby.
2) South Africa : Rising again
South Africa showed that they are rising again in Super Rugby. That is definitely good news for the competition. The Springboks franchises have always been famous for entertaining the crowds all around the world. All their franchises have performed well.
The most obvious point in Super Rugby 2019 is how the Bulls re-discovered their gameplan which brought them 3 Super Rugby crowns in 4 years between 2007 and 2010. They made a few statements including two away draws in Auckland and in Dunedin.
They showed some composure at every stage. Their defence has improved with turnovers made and discipline on the park. On attack, they spread the ball wide with a lot of width. Their forwards carried very well and their backline unleashed the combos.
The Stormers and the Lions were definitely unlucky not to be part of the play-offs. The Stormers had injuries to deal with as they probably lacked accuracy at some times. The Lions were a bit inconsistent. They got the home form but they did not find consistency.
On top of that, the Sharks were able to qualify like the last year, showing how unpredictable they are. The franchises in South Africa have performed well this season with a decent record against the New Zealand franchises. Their pool’s player is strong.
3) Australia and Argentina : Trying to build franchises
To finish with, Australia and Argentina have known various fortunes during the Super Rugby 2019. The Brumbies and the Jaguares have qualified to respectively represent Australia and Argentina in the play-offs. The sides have been linked with controversies.
First, the Brumbies have relied on their traditional gameplan with strong forwards and almost every try scored from set-piece mauls. It prompted one of the Brumbies coaching staff member to take on people suggesting their gameplan’s limits by insulting them.
This attitude cannot really lauded as the values of rugby union are bigger than that. About the Jaguares, the controversy came from Australia, suggesting that the Pumas franchise fooled the Sanzar as it is a national team on the field and not really a franchise.
On that point, it is tough to blame the Jaguares as they do not have enough players to build another team. It might change soon as the Jaguares qualified for the play-offs for a second time. It will be a home game as their rugby brand must be highly praised as well.
About the other Wallabies franchises, the Rebels developped an ambitious brand as well but could not win the defining fixtures. The Waratahs were disrupted off the field with the Israel Folau saga while the Reds showed improvements but they need to do more.
PART 2 : THE PROVINCIAL COMPETITIONS – OFF-FIELD NEWS
1) New Zealand : Steve Tew is leaving
As the Super Rugby is nearing towards its end for 2019, many things are happening at the same time. Provincial competitions will take place even if it is a World Cup season. Also, the nations had many off-field news to deal with. Let’s start with New Zealand.
It is already known that Steve Hansen, the All Blacks coach, will leave his role after the 2019 World Cup. His successor is still unknown but a few names have been thrown in the media : Warren Gatland, current Wales coach, and Scott Robertson, the Crusaders coach.
It has also been confirmed that the current NZRU (New Zealand Rugby Union) boss Steve Tew will leave. He helped New Zealand maintain his rank over the years. Steve Tew managed to keep the worldwide success while maintaining the players’ eligibility rules.
Rugby is starting to change and New Zealand have got a big challenge ahead of them. Many All Blacks players are taking up lucrative contracts in Japan. The NZRU have to create new deals, allowing players to go, while making sure that they remain with them.
It will be tough for the New Zealand board to balance the two. Despite these changes, New Zealand can rely on a strong academy system. The Mitre 10 Cup, starting in August, is the evidence of the talent coming through in the Land Of The Long White Cloud.
2) South Africa : New contracting system
The current South Africa coach Rassie Erasmus will be leaving his role after the 2019 World Cup as well but he will leave a strong legacy despite only the two years in charge. In June 2018, he appointed the first ever Black Springbok Captain : Siyamthanda Kolisi.
Since his arrival, Rassie Erasmus always worked on the best way to retain the best players at home. He pushed for the 30-cap rule as the Springboks players outside the Republic cannot play Test Rugby unless they reach that mark. It was an achievement.
Then, a few days ago, the SARU (South Africa Rugby Union) boss Jurie Roux announced that South Africa would put in place a new contracting system. From now, the players will not be contracted with the federation anymore but with their respective franchise.
This system should be more efficient to develop the desire for the players to remain in the country. Jurie Roux also specified that there would be special and significant advantages for the players staying home. It must be financial wages and recognition.
South Africa have also its provincial competition : the Currie Cup. The SARU pushed for the inclusion of provinces from Zimbabwe and Namibia. The first Tier will remain unchanged for the Currie Cup (Sharks, Western Province, Bulls, Lions, Cheetahs, Pumas).
3) Australia and Argentina : The Israel Folau saga and Delivering
In Australia, the year has been really difficult, off-field wise. It all started in May, while Super Rugby was entering its second part of the season. Israel Folau had just become the Super Rugby’s all-time try scorer with his 60th try that he scored against the Blues.
Just after that fixture, with the Waratahs having the bye weekend, Israel Folau posted a message on social media. The Wallaby fullback had immediately his contract removed by the ARU (Australia Rugby Union) claiming a high breach in the Code Of Conduct.
Amid the tension that the controversy created in the society, let’s have a cool and objective approach to get everybody agreed on that. First of all, everybody is entitled to an opinion but everybody must also act according to an universal value : Respect.
Israel Folau has got the right to think what he wants. We cannot prevent people from thinking what they want. Nevertheless, Israel Folau did not have to share this in a public way. It is obviously disappointed not to have him on the field but rugby is about respect.
About Argentina, the players really wants to deliver. There was a huge noise in 2017 when the national side was not performing. The players really want to achieve something great and the coaching staff does not want to know the same story twice.
PART 3 – THE WORLD CUP PREPARATIONS
1) New Zealand : Huge task for Steve Hansen
The All Blacks have got the ambition to win a third consecutive World Cup, which would be their fourth crown. If they want to achieve that feat, they are facing a huge task. Steve Hansen and his coaching staff will have to face a few challenges and not easy ones.
First of all, New Zealand have got a big competition from many sides all around the world. Since the 2015 World Cup success, the All Blacks have witnessed many nations showing how competitive they were. There are so many threats for New Zealand.
New Zealand have suffered a few losses against their Southern Hemisphere rivals : South Africa (2018) and Australia (2017). Also, the All Blacks have struggled against the Northern Hemisphere. They lost twice against Ireland (2016, 2018) among titanic tussles.
England and Scotland were also not far from winning and there also was the drawn British & Irish Lions series in 2017. Their aura is not as strong as what it was. Besides, there are questions about the gameplan that Steve Hansen wants to change quickly.
Finally, New Zealand had several key players injured such as Brodie Retallick, Kieran Read, Sonny Bill Williams and Ben Smith. They should come back in time but will have to deliver. There are also some doubts about the front-row and the back-row stocks quality.
2) South Africa : From outsiders to winners ?
The Springboks are considered as outsiders for the World Cup but they could well surprise the rugby world and win it. Seeded in the same pool as New Zealand, their first fixture against the defending Champions could be crucial if they are to win the Cup.
The Rugby Championship in 2019 showed that South Africa had the ability to win against New Zealand. They won in Wellington and almost did the same in Pretoria a few weeks later. Rassie Erasmus has been smart in the way that he has managed his squad so far.
He has led the racial transformation in the country, something that Allister Coetzee was unable to do. He gave time to Black players with calls based on merit and not favouritism (Siya Kolisi, Embrose Papier, Elton Jantjies, S’busiso Nkosi, Makazole Mapimpi).
The training camps will be an opportunity for Rassie Erasmus to work on his gameplan. He wants to add some width to the Springboks’ game. Second-rower RG Snyman was brought in the squad for his offload magic and the back-row options are outstanding.
In the backline, Handré Pollard has been instrumental on the pitch. If Jesse Kriel can get back to fitness, it would be good news. In the back-three, there is world-class talent : Cheslin Kolbe, Cornal Hendricks, Warrick Gelant, Curwin Bosch and Damian Willemse.
3) Australia and Argentina : Unity, a big factor
The biggest challenge for Australia and Argentina during the World Cup will be the unity. In the past, some rifts have appeared in the respective squads. It could completely disrupt their campaign so the boards will have to be very clear as what they expect.
To start with, the Pumas had an outstanding World Cup in 2015. They qualified for the semi-finals and huge credit was deservedly given to the coach Daniel Hourcade. Though, Argentina could not carry that form and Daniel Hourcade had to step down in 2017.
The Pumas’ poor form after the World Cup raised a few eyebrows considering how well the Jaguares were performing in Super Rugby. Mario Ledesma is now the coach but Gonzalo Quesada, the Jaguares manager, will not be part of the good coaching set-up.
As for Australia, the Israel Folau saga has shown a rift in the Wallabies training camp. The polynesian players playing for Australia expressed their support for Israel Folau, feeling their religion is in danger. It was the case for Taniela Tupou and Samu Kerevi.
Scott Johnson, the newly appointed Australia Director Of Rugby, spoke to these players. He tried to be objective to them and he will have the task to unify the squad. There also was a rivalry in the past between David Pocock and Israel Folau so that is a challenge.
The Super Rugby 2019 showed that New Zealand remain a force but their franchises are not so dominant as they were a few seasons ago. South Africa are rising again while Argentina have made improvements. It has really been a mixed season for Australia.
The All Blacks are in transition. They are trying to find their gameplan for the World Cup while their coach and the NZRU boss will leave soon. In South Africa, Rassie Erasmus is preparing well his squad while the new contracting system will help retain the players.
Australia have been disrupted by the Israel Folau saga and the federation will have to unify the squad. Finally, Argentina have performed well in Super Rugby and will have to replicate that at Test level. Southern Hemisphere remain strong and powerful as ever.
Finance has become a key part of the rugby game. Over the last few years, the Northern Hemisphere countries, such as France, England and Japan, have developped powerful markets. They brought some big money thanks to businessmen running the main clubs.
The target is attracting the best players of the planet. Almost all of these players are playing in the Southern Hemisphere. Given that their salary cannot match what is on offer, federations, like the NZRU (New Zealand Rugby Union), find it hard to retain them.
Since the 2015 World Cup, there were some significant signings with the stakes being higher and higher. Over the last few years, many superstars signed in the North for sometimes a 7-figure contract : Dan Carter, Kurtley Beale, Charles Piutau, Willie Le Roux.
Beauden Barrett : a player caught in that financial system
I- Year 2016 : When the first rumours appeared
Twice named World Rugby Player Of The Year (2016, 2017) and nominated again this year (2018), Beauden Barrett is no exception to these markets. The All Blacks playmaker re-signed with his federation in 2016, staying contracted with NZRU until the end of 2019.
For two years now, rumours started to appear in the media. Northern Hemisphere clubs were potentially chasing his signature. Moreover, they would be ready to make him a strong financial proposition to make him the highest paid rugby player in the world.
To sum up the situation, there has been first reports at the end of 2016 stating that Stade Toulousain and Toulon were potentially interested. With the British & Irish Lions coming to New Zealand the year after, the subsequent deals never came to fruition in France.
II- Year 2018 : More and more rumours in the media
If 2017 was a pretty quiet year on the transfer front for Beauden Barrett, the rumours made temselves even stronger this year, in 2018. First, in March 2018, it was reported that Top14 sides were preparing an offer : $3,400,000 per year or 1 800 000 € per year.
Later in the season, at the end of the year, it was reported that another Top14 club had proposed 1 500 000 € per year to Beauden Barrett. With reports suggesting that he is currently paid $1,000,000 a year by the NZRU, he would obviously make more money.
The options apparently expanded. A few Gallagher Premiership would be interested. On top of that, one or two Pro14 sides could potentially get his signature and Beauden Barrett confirmed that Japan is still an option. Or maybe he will stay in New Zealand ?!
III- The Options : What is on the table ?!
Here are the potential options for Beauden Barrett following the 2019 World Cup.
OPTION 1 : HE REMAINS IN NEW ZEALAND
The expected option would be for Beauden Barrett to remain in New Zealand, especially if he does not win the World Cup in 2019. He has got his family and his friends in Wellington. He enjoys playing with the Hurricanes and he cherishes the black jersey.
The challenge to win another World Cup in 2023 could be tempting for him. Beauden Barrett will target winning the World Cup as the starting first-five eighth. Even if he wins the 2019 prize, he might be tempted to leave an even more glorious legacy in his country.
Probability : 50%.
OPTION 2 : HE IS TAKING A SABBATICAL FOR ONLY ONE YEAR
The NZRU (New Zealand Rugby Union) is currently working on a plan to retain their high-profile players. Allowing them to take sabbaticals in another country after a World Cup is one of the solutions. The idea would be the player returning after one full season.
Part of this move, the NZRU would like to keep some control on these players. Therefore, a move in the Top14 appears unlikely. However, a short-term contract in Japan or in the Premiership with Harlequins, which have a partnership with NZRU, could be allowed.
Probability : 25%.
OPTION 3 : HE IS LEAVING NEW ZEALAND FOR A FEW YEARS
The player could decide to leave New Zealand for a few years. Generally, the contract agreed by the players include a 2-year clause with another year in option. Beauden Barrett could potentially still be back for the 2023 World Cup if the scenario is confirmed.
In that case, the candidates to get his services would be numerous. In the Top14, clubs such as Montpellier and Racing 92 would have the money to compete. Saracens and Exeter Chiefs could be interested for the Premiership and so could Leinster in the Pro14.
Probability : 25%.
OPTION 4 : HE IS SWITCHING CODES FROM UNION TO SEVENS
In 2016, following some outstanding work from World Rugby and his C.E.O (Chief Executive Officer) Brett Gosper, Sevens were back at the Olympics. It was almost a century since 1928 that Sevens had not been at the Olympics as Fiji won the Gold medal.
Two years ago, All Blacks superstars tried themselves at Seven such as Sonny Bill Williams, Liam Messam and Steven Luatua. Given his profile, Beauden Barrett could be devastating in Sevens. He told that he wanted to stay in union and he will not change.
Probability : 0%.
It is very difficult to know what Beauden Barrett will do after the 2019 World Cup. One thing is for sure, if he is leaving New Zealand after the global showpiece, a deal will be made even before the next Super Rugby season ends. The next few months will be key.
Given what Beauden Barrett said in the past about playing for the Hurricanes and New Zealand, he could remain. However, the player said that he would be interesting in taking a sabbatical in Japan. Also, NZRU and Harlequins signed a partnership deal.
Beauden Barrett never really said much about offers from Northern Hemisphere clubs, which does not mean that he is not tempted. Leaving New Zealand for more than a year is possible but returning to Sevens seem to be unlikely. He should stay in New Zealand.
With the June Internationals coming for the year 2018, Super Rugby is nearly at the end of the regular season. There will be only 3 Rounds left to be played in the season after the end of the Summer Tour. It is already an opportunity to make honest and big statements.
Super Rugby 2018 has brought a new format as the Sanzaar wanted a new structure to the competition. Three franchises have been told to go away : the Cheetahs, the Southern Kings and the Western Force. South Africa and Australia are now playing with 4 sides.
Runners-up in 2015, Champions in 2016 and semi-finalists in 2017, the Hurricanes were a threatening side at the beginning of 2018. The last two weekends have brought some questions back. Here is what is going on exactly for the Hurricanes and how to fix that.
I- The Super Rugby season (2018)
1. An excellent start
The Hurricanes came into the Super Rugby 2018 as one of the huge favourites to claim the Trophy, along with the Crusaders. They had a terrible start for their first outing of the season. It was a loss to the Bulls in Pretoria, in a game where they were in control.
Chris Boyd and John Plumtree addressed the problems after the first game and then, began an Incredible winning streak of 10 games. The Hurricanes weathered the storm in Argentina with a win against the Jaguares and got more momentum in the next weeks.
The Hurricanes got home derby wins (Crusaders, Highlanders and Chiefs) and performed well in their away games in Melbourne, for example. They were delivering some outstanding plays and they were in fine form to retain the Super Rugby Trophy.
2. Some average performances
The confidence was high in the Hurricanes training camp at that stage. Nevertheless, though it cannot be used as an excuse, some injuries started to come for the Hurricanes. Those injuries affected the forwards pack and the backline and there was a re-shuffle.
For example, in the forwards pack, replacement hooker and potential All Blacks player Asafo Aumua injured his wrist and became unavailable. Vaea Fifita became in trouble with his shoulder and Ardie Savea was also injured, with the backline impacted as well.
In the centres, Vince Aso, Matt Proctor and Wes Goosen had to sit down. It meant that the Hurricanes, even if they won, were unable to pick some bonus points. It was expected that they could have got those against the Lions, the Sunwolves, the Blues and the Reds.
3. Tough Times
Following the win against the Reds in Wellington, the Hurricanes knew that they were going to have two difficult games. They played these two next games away from home against the Crusaders and the Highlanders. They did not deliver in both of these games.
The performances were really disappointed with the Hurricanes not showing enough strength in defence. Moreover, about their attacking game, their backline did not make the difference enough times to get a try as their forwards did not give them a platform.
That is true that the Hurricanes had some tough refereeing calls against them. They probably should have got two penalties for Crusaders off-sides and one fair try was ruled out in Dunedin. Still, if these calls might have swung momentum, it cannot be an excuse.
II- The Explanations
1. Forwards pack struggling
In the recent Super Rugby seasons, the Hurricanes problems have come with their forwards pack and their ability to get a platform to attack. In 2016, when they were crowned Champions, they managed that area well but not so well for the last two years.
With the last two losses to the Crusaders and the Highlanders, it was showed that the Hurricanes were too much penalised at scrum time. Therefore, the team is put under pressure and has to defend too much. Besides, the backline cannot get some quick ball.
The front-row has not changed much since the start of the season. However, changes in the second-row, with Vaea Fifita injured, may have not helped. With the back-row, Brad Shields’ defence at scrum time has been questionned with the flankers not working well.
2. Lack of creation in attack
If the forwards pack might be held accountable in the last few weeks, the backline clearly should have done better despite a lack of go-forward. The Hurricanes always had a talented backline with players able to score tries from everywhere with their skills.
The Hurricanes have got many All Blacks players in their backline for the Super Rugby 2018 : TJ Perenara, Beauden Barrett, Ngani Laumape, Julian Savea, Nehe Milner-Skudder and Jordie Barrett. Unfortunately, they have not performed to their standards, recently.
Usually a relying combo, TJ Perenara and Beauden Barrett needs to re-discover their form. Ngani Laumape has not carried that well from centre and Julian Savea has not made the All Blacks squad. Nehe Milner-Skudder and Jordie Barrett must play better.
3. Defence and Discipline
In these last two Super Rugby games, there are clearly two areas that the Hurricanes must address immediately : Defence and Discipline. They had built their Super Rugby success in 2016 on these two areas and it explains their struggle in these past fixtures.
About the defence, John Plumtree has always come with a good plan to defend well. Last years, he was relying on skipper Brad Shields and leader Cory Jane. With Brad Shields set to go to England and Cory Jane having left, the new defence leaders must be found.
On top of that, the penalty count is just too high at the moment. The standard is usually 10 penalties a game, 5 penalties a half, 1 penalty every 8 minute. The Hurricanes are not making cynical mistakes, getting some yellow cards, but it does not help the momentum.
III- Potential Consequences
1. Tarnished Reputation
There has been a few comments from the media and from many people in the forums suggesting that the Hurricanes’ reputation is tarnished. With the Blues, the Hurricanes are probably the most criticised franchise in New Zealand and it is not justified, in fact.
The Hurricanes are getting criticised because they are struggling at scrum time and because their backline is not as effective as it was. Also, there are some debatable comments about Brad Shields’ decision to play for England rather than New Zealand.
Also, the comments were suggesting that the Hurricanes should not be complaining with the officiating. According to these comments, these “50-50” calls would not have changed the final results. It is debatable considering that these games are always very contested.
2. Fight for All Blacks spots
In the New Zealand team announcement for the June Internationals, the Hurricanes were the second most represented Kiwi Super Rugby franchise. However, that is fair to say that it could all change soon if the Hurricanes players do not make the next step.
The Hurricanes have played their last two games against other All Blacks players and the Crusaders and the Highlanders outplayed them. TJ Perenara could not play the way that Aaron Smith did and Beauden Barrett could not control the game like Richie Mo’unga.
Jack Goodhue had the better of Ngani Laumape in the midfield with Waisake Naholo performing better than Nehe Milner-Skudder. Jordie Barrett did not play in his usual position, outside centre rather than fullback, and it did some damage to his great game.
3. End of an era ?
In the 2010’s, the Hurricanes were in some rebuilding after a few semi-finals and a Final contested in the late 2000’s. Current Highlanders assistant coach Mark Hammett came to the team, gave an opportunity to TJ Perenara and Beauden Barrett, and had the methods.
When he left at the end of the Super Rugby 2014, the Hurricanes had missed the play-offs for just a single point. In 2015, Chris Boyd was named despite having coached Wellington to relegation in the Mitre 10 Cup. For his first season, the Hurricanes were runners-up.
Next season, rather unexpectedly, the Hurricanes won the Super Rugby and last year, they were semi-finalists. The danger is that these last 3 seasons do not bring something positive to the future. The Hurricanes have built an era, they have to develop it more.
IV- The keys to success
1. Back to the basics
The Hurricanes are officially in the play-offs in the Super Rugby 2018 despite 3 games left to play for all the franchises. Nevertheless, as stated several times, the last two games have really not been good enough. There are few keys to come back for the Hurricanes.
The first one would be going back to the basics because one of the reasons why they have not performed is that they have not done the basics well. The scrum can be improved because the back-row, particularly the flankers, could work harder in that area, in fact.
Moreover, the lineout moves have to be improved as well. The Hurricanes have lost too many throws in the last two games. The calls have always been the same and the attacking moves from the set-pieces were not original. John Plumtree could change that.
2. Which midfield partnership ?
Once again, it cannot be branded as an excuse but the disruption in the midfield could explain most of the Hurricanes’ struggles. Many changes in the centres meant that the Hurricanes’ attack could not work well and the link with the other backs was not good.
Chris Boyd and John Plumtree called that the best midifield partnership for the Hurricanes is Ngani Laumape and Matt Proctor. The fact is that Matt Proctor is currently out with a sternum injury. His replacement, Vince Aso, is also currently unavailable.
Winger Wes Goosen, who can also plays centre, is coming back but it is not sure if he can deliver in that position. Finally, there is also Peter Umaga-Jensen but Jordie Barrett is a fullback. He could operate as a second playmaker but outside centre is not his position.
3. Working Together
The other key which could be defining for the Hurricanes is bringing the values that this team has always defended. It is how this squad and how the players and the coaching staff are going to bounce back together. They have not become a bad team in two weeks.
Surely, the June Internationals will be welcomed by Chris Boyd and John Plumtree who will have the opportunity to elaborate a potential Plan B. It is not sure that the two coaches will make all changes to their starting XV but there could be some re-shuffle.
With 3 games left to play at the end of July, the Hurricanes will hope to have both Vaea Fifita and Matt Proctor available again. The two promising back-rowers Reed Prinsep and Sam Henwood should get more game time as well in the last stages of the season.
The Hurricanes had a brillant start to the season in Super Rugby 2018. Following some impressive performances, they started to get more wins but in an average way. Then, they had two tough away games and they lost both in very disappointing performances.
That lack of momentum can be explained by a forwards pack struggling and a not so threatening backline with a high penalty count. It has brough some tough critics, tarnishing reputation as some All Blacks are under pressure and an era could be gone.
Nevertheless, there is some hope for this great Hurricanes side. Some players, currently injured, could come back for the end of the season. The coaches need to find the midfield partnership and a good gameplan. The Hurricanes will come back stronger. Hurricanes.
The year 2018 is coming and with 2018 coming, it means that huge challenges will have to be raised. When the Pro14 season was launched in September 2017, there were important changes with two new talented franchises welcomed in the competition.
In fact, in April 2017, the Sanzaar, which is the governing body of Super Rugby, decided to axe three franchises from the competition. They wanted to re-structure the competition with 15 franchises rather than 18 franchises and the Cheetahs were axed.
The Cheetahs were not the only franchise axed as the Southern Kings and the Western Force were in the same situation. The Cheetahs seem to be able to make that transition and there is much hope that the Bloemfontein-based franchise will reach greatness soon.
I- Building on the Currie Cup Trophy
The Cheetahs won the Currie Cup in 2016 after outstanding performances in the South-African provincial competition. It showed that the Free State Cheetahs (the province’s name) had the talent in their academy to compete with the best provinces in the country.
Unfortunately, that success did not lift the Cheetahs in terms of Super Rugby exposure. The Super Rugby squad in 2017 which played for the Cheetahs was almost the same than the squad which won the Currie Cup. Actually, there are explanations to that situation.
Sometimes, the scoreboard and the standings are not reflecting a team’s talent or the work that is made. Franco Smith, Director Of Rugby, was key in the Currie Cup Triumph and he has developped over the seasons an attractive rugby brand with attacking power.
For example, during the 2017 Super Rugby season, the Cheetahs were absolutely not ridiculous against the All Blacks franchises. They gave the Crusaders a good run, were in the contest for 70 minutes against the Chiefs and lost to the Highlanders in the last play.
These three games, which were played in Bloemfontein, showed that the Cheetahs were able to compete with the best. Away form has always been a concern but it is unfair to blame the Cheetahs for their results in the Super Rugby considering the committment.
II- The exciting Pro14 adventure
Following the axing which was confirmed last April, 2017, the Cheetahs tried to find other opportunities to keep playing the game. The solution was offered in the Northern Hemisphere when Pro14 representatives agreed to expand the competition elsewhere.
The Cheetahs and the Southern Kings were included in the Pro14 at the start of the 2017-2018 season. For their first game in Ulster, despite a heavy defeat but having scored two stunning tries, the Cheetahs got a deserved standing ovation from the crowd in Belfast.
Besides, their first away games were difficult because the Cheetahs did not adapt well to that new competition. Nevertheless, their home run during the first part of the season was remarkable with wins against Leinster, Ospreys, Edinburgh, Scarlets and Zebre.
Considering the new format which was submitted at the start of the season, there will be 6 teams which will qualify for the play-offs. There are two conferences and the two leaders will host their semi-finals while there will be two others play-offs games in fact.
It means that the first three teams of each conference will compete for the Title. The Cheetahs will face tough assisgments away against teams like Cardiff Blues and the Ospreys. The Cheetahs will have to win the three derbies against Southern Kings as well.
III- The keys to win the Pro14
If the Cheetahs managed to win the Currie Cup in 2016, they surely are able to win the Pro14. That is not the same competition but the Currie Cup provinces are as talented as the Pro14 provinces : Natal Sharks, Western Province, Golden Lions and the Blue Bulls.
One of the first keys to win the competition is keeping the gameplan which made them successful and popular. Franco Smith brought a structure and he has built an attacking gameplan where the offloads unlock the defence and width adds to the attacking skills.
Also, there is a part of the gameplan which is about the turnovers. The Cheetahs are often targeting the turnovers because they are very talented in the counter-attack. This gameplan is also about mixing things about the combinations and the territory balance.
The Cheetahs forwards pack has outstandingly improved compared to the Super Rugby days. However, an area of big improvement has to be the defence. If the Cheetahs are scoring many tries, they are concededing as many and they must improve that area.
Rassie Erasmus, who left the Munster Director Of Rugby role early in November, came back in South Africa to help the Springboks. Former Cheetahs Director Of Rugby, Rassie Erasmus could be the great guy who could help the Cheetahs improve their overall game.
IV- The talented Cheetahs players
The Cheetahs managed to retain almost all their squad which won the Currie Cup in 2016 and which played in the Super Rugby 2017. There are great talents in the squad, players who have been capped by the Springboks and they surely can achieve great things there.
First of all, much credit has to go to the props who have really improved at scrum time. Tom Botha and Charles Marais are the two props who are starting regularly. Often considered as a replacement, Ox Nché is popular in Bloemfontein and a great player.
The hooker position is very important in a rugby team and Torsten Van Jaarsveld, Namibian player, is leading by example. The second-rowers Rynier Bernardo and Reniel Hugo, along with Carl Wegner, are good carriers and the impact is good around the park.
On top of the that, the back-rowers are very powerful and they can compete with any other players. There is an embarassment of riches with Henco Venter, Niell Jordaan, Junior Pokomela, Paul Schoeman and the Springboks Uzair Cassiem and Oupa Mohojé.
Scrum-halves Tian Meyer and Shaun Venter combine with fly-halves Fred Zeilinga and Ernst Stapelberg. There is centre partnership : William Small-Smith and Captain François Venter. Sibahle Maxwane, Craig Barry and Clayton Blommetjies play in the back-three.
V- The Challenges to be raised
The Cheetahs, if they want to be successful in the future, have to raise a few challenges and the first one is retaining players. In the past, the Cheetahs have lost some key players which meant that they could not achieve their potential in the Super Rugby campaigns.
For example, second-rower Lood de Jager left the Cheetahs two seasons ago to play for the Bulls in Pretoria. Also, the Cheetahs suffered from the loss of two influential back-rowers : Boom Prinsloo, a popular figure, and Heinrich Brussow, a Springbok player.
That would be possible to add to that list the following names : Hooker Adriaan Strauss (retired Springboks Captain who left for the Bulls), prop Trevor Nyakane (who also left for the Bulls), fullback Willie Le Roux (Sharks and Wasps) and Johan Goosen (Racing 92).
Meanwhile, the Cheetahs have to deal with the power of money. They are not in financial struggles but they cannot compete at the moment with the other teams. If they cannot get some sponsorship deals in the Northern Hemisphere, they must rely on the academy.
The Cheetahs have got a powerful academy and they will need it. It has been announced that Raymond Rhule and Sergeal Petersen would play for the Stormers in 2018. Also, the Cheetahs are fighting to keep Makazole Mapimpi who could sign to play for the Sharks.
That is an exciting time for the Cheetahs because they are aware of that potential and they want to show the other teams their value. They were unfairly axed from Super Rugby but credit has to go to their board which found new oppotunities for the team.
Playing now in the Pro14, the Cheetahs need two guys at their best to lift them : Franco Smith and Rassie Erasmus. Franco Smith brought a gameplan and Rassie Erasmus is their former Director Of Rugby. They must retain their players to win some silverware.
Finally, the Cheetahs must build their academy and get some sponsorship deals to be more comfortable. They will have to keep their gameplan but also adapt to the conditions away from home. This is exciting times and there is much hope, definitely.
The Mitre 10 Cup is more and more entertaining as the provinces involved were playing Round 4 this weekend. Just like last weekend, three provinces were remaining unbeaten. There were Canterbury, the Mitre 10 Cup holders, North Harbour and Wellington, too.
The Rugby Championship was back as well, meaning that few All Blacks players were released to their provinces. That was a big week for two provinces playing in the Championship : Wellington and Hawke’s Bay. These two provinces were playing twice.
Also, following last weekend’s heavy defeat against North Harbour, Auckland had to salvage something from the opening Rounds. They were hosting Taranaki at Eden Park and that was a big challenge. Taranaki are one of the favourites teams in Premiership.
Game 23 : Wellington vs. Hawke’s Bay (Westpac Stadium, Wellington, New Zealand)
That game was about two Hurricanes provinces facing each other. Wellington took the better start with winger Julian Savea showing his power to score. Later in the first-half, Sitiveni Paongo was on the scoreboard while Alex Fidow had his try under the posts.
The last try featured a good work from Wes Goosen but Hawke’s Bay came back just before Half-Time with Cardiff Vaega scoring in the left corner. In second-half, prop Alex Fidow got his double while Wes Goosen was over the line after some great footwork.
Hawke’s Bay came back later with Jason Long powering his way through. Wellington scored a last try with Malo Tuitama getting a great offload. Hawke’s Bay had the bonus point with Sam McNicol and Jorian Tangaere touching down but too late (FT : 40-27).
Game 24 : Counties Manukau vs. North Harbour (ECOLight Stadium, Pukekohe, New Zealand)
Since the start of the season, North Harbour were facing their toughest challenge against the Counties Manukau. They started pretty well in fact with prop Sione Mafileo on the scoreboard after just two minutes. The Counties Manukau bounced back quickly, then.
Fullback Luteru Laulala concluded a great move towards the end of the first-half. Tim Nanai-Williams found a gap and offloaded before the ball went wide. Nevertheless, in the second-half, it was inconsistent from the Counties Manukau in the Pukekohe town.
They managed to score a try in the second-half thanks to Tim Nanai-Williams but were often penalised. Ben Volavola scored several penalties while Tevita Li beat three defenders on his left wing to score the defining try and take the defining win (FT : 18-27).
Game 25 : Canterbury vs. Southland (AMI Stadium, Christchurch, New Zealand)
Coming for the Ranfurly Shield, Southland tried to give his best. In a close first-half, Canterbury started well with Richie Mo’unga scoring a double but Southland came back. Junior Ngaluafe and Heria Fomai concluded great moves including some good offloads.
In the second-half, Canterbury unleashed his power with Braydon Ennor finding space on his left wing twice for two tries. Fullback George Bridge was also on the scoreboard after good work from the forwards and there was more issues for the Southland Stags.
Winger Ryan Tongia was sin-binned for a shoulder charge on Richie Mo’unga. It did not help as George Brige touched down. Josh McKay had his try while Braydon Ennor had a quadruple, George Bridge, a Hat-Trick, and Tim Bateman scored the last try (FT : 78-20).
Game 26 : Manawatu vs. Bay Of Plenty (Central Energy Trust Arena, Palmerston North, New Zealand)
This contest was some battle with Manawatu scoring the first try of the game thanks to playmaker Oter Black. Bay Of Plenty closed the gap with two penalties from Kelly Haimona but Manawatu kept their momentum and back Lewis Marshall had the try.
Towards the end of the first-half, Bay Of Plenty managed to score their first try thanks to a good combination at lineout time. Joe Webber was on the scoreboard and Bay Of Plenty showed some strength in defence during the second-half to keep Manawatu quiet.
With just 10 minutes remaining, Manawatu number 8 Heiden Bedwell-Curtis was yellow-carded for not retreating 10 metres. Bay Of Plenty got a penalty try and that was the end of the game, Manawatu falling very close to the win at Palmerston North (FT : 17-20).
Game 27 : Auckland vs. Taranaki (Eden Park, Auckland, New Zealand)
Auckland had to react after the last two games but Taranaki had the better start. Declan O’Donnell touched down in the right corner while Toa Halafihi intercepted to score. Auckland got back into the game with Vince Aso finishing a nice move on the right wing.
Then, Marcel Renata touched down from close range before Stephen Perofeta found a gap to score for Taranaki. Taleni Seu had his try for Auckland just before Half-Time. In second-half, Taranaki kept attacking with back Te Toira Tahuriorangi on the scoreboard.
Once again, Auckland made too many mistakes in their build-up and Taranaki scored from counter-attacks thanks to Lachlan Boshier and Kylem O’Donnell. Vince Aso scored two consolation tries to grap a great Hat-Trick in another thrilling contest (FT : 38-49).
Game 28 : Northland vs. Waikato (Toll Stadium, Whangarei, New Zealand)
Following a good start to their season, Northland wanted to keep the momentum. They scored two tries in the opening half with fullback Solomon Alaimalo on the scoreboard. Forwards Ross Wright had enough power to touch down as well for the great second try.
Waikato lacked discipline and forwards James Tucker was yellow-carded following a dangerous tackle. Forwards Jack Ram scored Northland’s 3rd try of the game when he used the momentum which was created by a good driving maul near the Waikato’s line.
Running the ball from their own half, Northland had the bonus point try thanks to Jack Goodhue while Waikato scored their first try with Adam Burn crossing. Later, winger Jone Macilai-Tori put the icing on the cake with a last try for Northland team (FT : 37-7).
Game 29 : Tasman vs. Wellington (Lansdowne Park, Blenheim, New Zealand)
Another classic encounter happened in Blenheim with Wellington scoring a 105-metre try thanks to prop Alex Fidow. After that, Wes Goosen collected Jackson Garden-Bachop to race through, making the assist for Ben Lam while Tim Perry had a try for Tasman.
That was an entertaining game with Sam Lousi scoring after a good build-up for Wellington and James Blackwell concluding a great move. Tasman remained in the game as Will Jordan scored and James Lowe collected Alex Nankivell’s grubber for a great try.
Wellington were on the back foot and conceded another try from Mitch Hunt. However, they came back almost immediately thanks to Losi Filipo but it was too late and Tasman hung on to the win in the closing stages to claim their second win of the year (FT : 37-35).
Game 30 : Hawke’s Bay vs. Otago (McLean Park, Napier, New Zealand)
The Southerners did not wait long to show their intent as Josh Furno and Dillon Hunt benefited from good build-ups to score the first two tries. Patelesio Tomkinson had his try on the left wing after winger Jona Nareki found a gap in the Hawke’s Bay midfield.
It did not get better for Hawke’s Bay when Fletcher Smith scored after a reverse pass. Hawke’s Bay had their first try thanks to Jonah Lowe but Otago still attacked. Joshua Furno had a double while Marino Mikaele-Tu’u was on the scoreboard for Hawke’s Bay.
However, Sekonaia Pole scored from a driving maul for Otago. He was followed by Fletcher Smith and Aki Seiuli. Ellery Wilson scored one more try for Hawke’s Bay while Fletcher Smith had a Hat-Trick try to give the big win to the Otago province (FT : 21-64).
The Talking Points :
Championship : Despite the Tasman loss, Wellington remain at the top of the standings. Northland and Otago are building nicely while Southland has to win quickly. Hawke’s Bay, Manawatu can still make the play-offs but they will have to fight with Bay Of Plenty.
Premiership : Canterbury retained the Ranfurly Shield while North Harbour and Taranaki got wins. Waikato are inconsistent while Tasman is coming back. Auckland and Counties Manukau could just fight to stay in the Premiership for the next season in 2018.
Ranfurly Shield : Canterbury will defend the Ranfurly Shield for the 3rd time of the season next weekend. They got wins against Otago and Southland while Counties Manukau is coming to Christchurch, next weekend, to try and win that prestigious Ranfurly Shield.
With Round 4 having been played this weekend, only two provinces are remaining unbeaten : Canterbury and North Harbour. These two provinces could well face each other for the Mitre 10 Cup in a few weeks if North Harbour is keeping the momentum.
Northland is not the province which was struggling in the last three seasons anymore. They will defeinitely fight with Wellington and Otago for promotion in the Premiership. Tasman and Manawatu are outsiders but they can definitely come back for the play-offs.
Canterbury will defend the Ranfurly Shield against Counties Manukau next weekend as both provinces will play twice. Northland will host North Harbour, Otago and Tasman will face each other while Canterbury will play the Wellington side later in the weekend.
One year ago, an article was written on this blog to pay tribute to the Crusaders who were looking the favourites to win that 2016 Super Rugby competition. That year, they had an opportunity to secure the home play-offs games thanks to a win in Christchurch.
During the last game of the regular season in 2016, the Crusaders were hosting the Hurricanes and they did not play well. The Hurricanes had to make a change just before the start of the game with Jason Woodward, shifting from the wing to the midfield.
The Crusaders lost that game with the Hurricanes taking the bonus point. That big win allowed them to finish at the top of the table and they won their elusive Title three weekends after. The Wellington-based franchise defeated the Lions at Westpac Stadium.
As for the Crusaders, they had to travel to Johannesburg in Quarter-Finals and they failed to qualify. This game was the last for Todd Blackadder as a Crusaders coach and it was a new era for the Super Rugby legendary franchise coming into that 2017 season.
Former New Zealand U-20s coach, Scott Robertson, was appointed at the beginning of the 2017 Super Rugby season. He had previously won the Junior World Championship but there were some doubts about his ability to deliver. He led the Crusaders to the Glory.
When the Crusaders started their season in 2017, the Rugby Planet was well aware that, a bit like each season, they were going to be one of the franchises to beat. Scott Robertson followed the gameplan and the Crusaders team started this campaign with confidence.
In the first part of their season, the Crusaders made some statements. It was not statements about the performance in itself but statements about their desire to win. The Crusaders made astonishing comebacks in their first encounters which were brillant.
The players opened the season with a home game against the Brumbies and they were a bit rusty. The Crusaders trailed in the middle of the second-half but they managed to trust their structures and they scored a defining try in the left corner to seal the win.
The game after, it was even more brillant as the Crusaders went to Forsyth Barr, Dunedin. Trailing by 23 points with a quarter to go, the Crusaders scored a penalty, three tries and the conversions to edge the Highlanders, Seta Tamanivalu, the defining player.
Besides, Scott Robertson’s side did not want to stop playing with the supporters. The next weekend, in Brisbane, the team was trailing the Reds after tries conceded and a backline re-shuffle. They came back in the second-half and Mitch Hunt scored a winning penalty.
II- The Gameplan : Why It Is The Best
Credit has to be given to Scott Robertson because he has managed something that nobody had achieved before him. He won the Super Rugby competition as a player and as a coach. That is more difficult to win it as a coach as there is a big responsibility there.
The challenge which was proposed to Scott Robertson was the significant improvement of a potential great gameplan which had been developped by Todd Blackadder. When he left to coach Bath in England, he had reached two finals with the club (2011 and 2014).
Scott Robertson kept the basics of that gameplan which are simple : the strength of the forwards pack. The Crusaders are the most powerful franchise when it comes to the scrum, the lineout, the physical battle and the ability to get that ruthless edge in games.
The scrum has won many penalties for the Crusaders and their driving maul showed that their lineout was working. Talking about the lineout, the Crusaders stole so many balls to their opponents and these massive turnovers are defining the small margins.
After these basics, the key is also scoring tries and the backline is going to do that. What Scott Robertson brought that Todd Blackadder did not is the attacking edge. Youngsters such as centre Jack Goodhue and winger George Bridge definitely stepped up in 2017.
III- The All Blacks : Strong Contingent
If Scott Robertson deserves a big credit for that final win in Johannesburg, the players are worth a mention and especially the All Blacks contingent. Most of the Test players are key players of the forwards pack where there are 9 All Blacks players delivering.
The front-row, which relies on Joe Moody, Codie Taylor and Owen Franks, is one of the best in the World. In the second-row, Sam Whitelock has made some massive contributions to the game, stealing the balls at lineout, along with Scott Barrett as well.
Moreover, the back-row is incredibly powerful with Matt Todd and Kieran Read, both capped by New Zealand as well. Only Jordan Taufua, who started the final in that forwards pack, has never been capped by the All Blacks but his time could come soon.
On the bench, covering the front-row and the second-row respectively, there are Wyatt Crockett, the Super Rugby most-capped player ever, and Luke Romano who remains a great supersub. The backline has also got superstars who are playing with the All Blacks.
Centre Ryan Crotty is no doubt the most under-rated player so far in 2017 while his teammate Jack Goodhue has been called as a training cover in the All Blacks camp, last June. Fulback Israel Dagg is a fantastic winger who came back to his best last season.
IV- The Passion : A Rugby Area
Honestly, it would be very difficult to find another area in New Zealand which has got this passion for Rugby. Of course, Auckland, Wellington, Waikato and Dunedin are fantastic places for this game but there is the feeling that Christchurch is just the best.
For many years, Rugby was very popular in Auckland with the Blues winning the Super Rugby. In the Mitre 10 Cup, the New Zealand capital are very well represented with Auckland, the Counties Manukau, North Harbour and Northland, in the Championship.
The Crusaders always had that strong legacy in Super Rugby as they have now won 8 Super Rugby Titles. They have got a fantastic poll of players to pick from as Canterbury and Tasman, their two Mitre 10 Cup provinces, contested the mighty Cup last season.
Also, that franchise wants to give back to their fans and make sure that they are still growing. They were left without stadium when their home of Lancaster Park was completely destroyed by an earthquake in 2011, just before the World Cup that year.
They moved to the AMI Park but the capacity is not adapted to the growth of the Crusaders. That franchise would deserve to play in front of, at least, 30,000 people each weekend. Considering how they are playing, it is definitely worth buying all the tickets.
V- The Future : Unbeatable ?!
Obviously, the question which has to be asked immediately is whether the Crusaders are on a new era like the mid-2000’s, when they won most of their Titles, or not. They are probably starting a new legacy and they could easily go back-to-back next season, then.
The Crusaders have in Canterbury and Tasman two powerful provinces which are a bit like academies. The youngsters who have been crowned previously played with these provinces in the Mitre 10 Cup and they will continue development during next weeks.
Canterbury has won the last two Mitre 10 Cup editions and they are also the Ranfurly Shield holders after the Waikato win in 2016. Tasman reached the final that year in Christchurch after a fantastic semi-final win against Taranaki at Yarrow Stadium.
It seems that there is no franchise and no province which can compete with the Crusaders and Canterbury, respectively. The Hurricanes won against the Crusaders but that was in particular circumstances while Canterbury only lost to Manawatu in 2016.
Canterbury will probably remain the Kings of the Mitre 10 Cup. Given the home record, they will keep the Ranfurly Shield. Even if they were playing the final away from home, the Crusaders showed that they were stronger than that, altitude and the crowd factor.
The Crusaders have won the Super Rugby in 2017 but that was just a matter of time because they were not so far from that Title last season. Todd Blackadder built a great gameplan and Scott Robertson followed in his footsteps before reaching the Glory.
The 8-time Super Rugby winners had a trademark during their first games of the season. They made some incredible comeback wins against the Highlanders and the Reds. The Crusaders remained composed and their gameplan paid dividends thanks to their pack.
About the forwards pack, the All Blacks players deserve some praise for their contribution. Owen Franks is still very solid, Sam Whitelock cannot be beaten in the air, Kieran Read is an inspiring skipper, Ryan Crotty is under-rated and Israel Dagg is great.
Following the earthquake which damaged Lancaster Park, the Crusaders had to play in AMI Park, which is more a rugby league pitch. The team would definitely deserve to play in a bigger stadium. The Crusaders are playing an attractive brand of footy for their fans.
In 2018, the Crusaders will defend their Crown and could go back-to back after the Chiefs in 2012 and 2013. Potentially, there is no reason which could prevent them to retain the Super Rugby Title. Fair to say that the other franchises have some huge homework to do.