With the 2001 Super 12s just around the corner, former Springbok coach Nick Mallett runs the rule over the four South African teams who will be competing in the tournament...
Some of the Super 12 sides were training before Christmas, without their Springboks, but now (next week in most cases) training in earnest begins for the Super 12. It does make for an absurdly long rugby season for a lot of players, but also gives me food for this column - how one thinks the South African teams, traditional Super 12 underperformers, might do in the 2001 edition. My view is that the Stormers will do the best of all four SA teams. They simply have got some outstanding young talent and some brilliant backs. They may lack a couple of locks to back up Hottie Louw, who had an outstanding 2000. Hottie may find himself played out of his boots in this year's competition unless Alan Solomons can find the options to rest him. He has excellent loose forwards and some depth there in the likes of Corné Krige, hopefully Bob Skinstad, Hendrik Gerber, Robbie Brink, etcetera. In fact Brink may find himself at lock to help that situation.
Unfortunately the Cobus Visagie situation is not resolved yet - and I really feel for Cobus - and he will leave a huge hole if he is unable to play, as he has established himself as one of the leading tight-heads in world rugby. Toks van der Linde may be in doubt too, but there is still Robbie Kempson and some depth in Morné van der Merwe, who did so well for Wellington in winning the NPC in New Zealand last year, and promising Faan Rautenbach, who a lot of players reckon is one of the country's stronger tight-heads. I think even a Springbok like Carel van der Merwe may struggle for a place in this Stormers' starting fifteen.
In the backs you have two very good scrumhalves in Dan van Zyl and Neil de Kock competing. And then you have three Bok flyhalves! And in looking at this issue around Percy Montgomery, Chris Rossouw and Braam van Straaten, you come across what I think is an absolutely fundamental issue around the Super 12.
With Sarfu having taken the decision not to control the Super 12 directly, i.e. by not contracting the players themselves and allowing the regions to do so, the regions have control over the squads. As a result, I fail to see how the national coach can have any control of which players play and in what positions players play. If the contracts were held by Sarfu the national coach could have some leverage towards what he wants to see in the Super 12 for the benefit of the Springbok team. However, the Sarfu executive themselves voted against Sarfu control. In the South African Super 12 outfits there is a high turnover of coaches. Look at guys like Heyneke Meyer, Hugh Reece-Edwards and Peet Kleynhans who got only one year each before going. Contracts for the coaches are short and there is virtually no security of tenure. A guy like Solly (Alan Solomons) has had to prove himself every year. Despite 2000's good result, he was almost not reappointed for 2001.
As a result of the circumstances these coaches find themselves in, they have to take a short personal view on the Super 12 - i.e. to win as many super 12 games as possible and as soon as possible. They cannot really afford to take the national interest into account. That is why it remains an aberration that the regions control the Super 12 in South Africa. The Super 12 coaches should be appointed with and for the same tenure as the Springbok coach. The current system is not a one conducive to Bok success and it has created, and will continue to create, problems.
Solly has four class centres, five Boks if you count Rob Fleck, De Wet Barry, Braam, Wayne Julies (if fit) and Robert Markram (if he wants him). I suspect he will stick with the classic back three of Breyton Paulse, Pieter Rossouw and Monty, which goes back to my point of above.
I think that the Cats will be very similar to the outfit and playing style of 2000. Laurie Mains unquestionably will give one hundred percent. One need not worry about his Otago NPC appointment - that is irrelevant. He is a professional coach with a strong desire to do well. He has the same players as last year and an absolutely magnificent loose trio in André Venter, Johan Erasmus and André Vos. It will be interesting to see whether another fly-half emerges. Louis Koen was effective in last year's Super 12, but has been unable to take a convincing step up to national level and Laurie may want to look for a fly-half who can launch his backs better.
As regards the Sharks, the jury is still out on Rudolf Straueli. It is one thing to coach a Sharks side in the Currie Cup with about 15 Springboks, but quite another to coach a Super 12 outfit. Even the Sharks' Currie Cup campaign was not that convincing. They got to the final, but then played a style of rugby that was rather worrying, in that, if that style were used in the Super 12, they could get smashed. There is a question mark as to whether Gaffie du Toit would be used at flyhalf or fullback. It is time he stepped up and took control of things and produced consistent performances to show he has a Bok future - and not just flashes of brilliance in one match.
The Bulls will be fit and physical - that is how Phil Pretorius prepares his teams - but they may lack the intellectual capacity to do well in the Super 12. I think that the Bulls have won only one away game in the Super 12 (in 1996). The Cats have never won one, although Free State had that outstanding win over Otago a couple of years ago. For the Bulls to finish in the top half, they will need to win one overseas game, which may be a big ask. I am afraid that I do not have a lot of confidence in this outfit. I think Phil Pretorius's selection as coach was an extraordinary one given his three-year Currie Cup record at the Falcons, but let's hope they prove me wrong.