Adaptability, confidence and simple joy leave South African rugby in rude health

Adaptability, confidence and simple joy leave South African rugby in rude health
Sanele Nohamba of the Lions breaks the Sharks defence and scores a try during the United Rugby Championship match between Lions vs Sharks at Emirates Airline Park on 2 March 2024 in Johannesburg. (Photo: Sydney Seshibedi/Gallo Images)

South African rugby, at least the men’s 15s game, is in good form. This weekend’s two United Rugby Championship (URC) derbies in Johannesburg and Pretoria underlined why.

Not even a notorious highveld thunderstorm could dampen the feel-good factor around South African rugby, after the Bulls and Lions won entertaining URC clashes against the Stormers and Sharks respectively.

The two matches were 70km apart at Ellis Park and Loftus Versfeld, but they connected local rugby through excellence and, yes, joy.

Ever since the Springboks gloriously won Rugby World Cup 2023 in France, to retain the title they had won in Japan four years earlier, South African rugby, on the field at least, seems to be operating in a warm glow. At boardroom level there is some tension, but that’s a story for another day. 

Besides obvious skills, huge physicality and tactically astute performances for the most part, players seem to be going about their business with smiles.

Ben Loader of the Stormers on his way to score a try with tackler Marco van Staden of the Blue Bulls during the URC match between Bulls and Stormers at Loftus Versfeld on 2 March 2024. (Photo: Anton Geyser/Gallo Images)

Rugby for rugby’s sake 

It really does feel like players — which extends to fans as well — are enjoying themselves more than ever. There is a wonderful sense of connection to rugby for rugby’s sake.

It could be that playing summer rugby is finally catching on, but it’s more likely down to the fact that three of the four teams are  playing such an eye-catching brand of rugby.

“These guys are always ‘all-in’. Not to mention their versatility in terms of being able to cover more than one position and the ability to unlock defences and create scoring opportunities. It’s a privilege.”— Lions coach Ivan van Rooyen

The South African pillars of set piece strength and strong defence are still on display every week. But those foundations are increasingly layered with style and panache; plus adventure and joy from a cast of players liberated from claustrophobic gameplans and a fear of losing.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Contrasting nature of URC underlines its value in preparing players for Test rugby  

The Sharks are struggling with just one win in their tanked URC campaign, but even within the flotsam and jetsam of their season, there have been moments to savour.

Kurt-Lee Arendse of the Bulls during the URC Bulls vs Stormers at Loftus Versfeld on 2 March 2024 in Pretoria. (Photo: Wessel Oosthuizen/Gallo Images)

Coaches adjusting to demands

Coaches have adjusted to the demands this unique competition brings. And in another strand of change, more by osmosis than by instruction, the Boks’ adaptability at Test level, has filtered downwards. 

From their 35-7 mauling of the All Blacks on a warm London autumn evening, to mining a deep well of reserve to beat England 16-15 on a wet Parisian night, the Boks’ example has seeped into the provincial game.

Bulls coach Jake White is perhaps the biggest example of South Africa’s new way of approaching rugby. His Bulls play a wonderfully rounded game, underpinned by traditional strengths but flecked with genius in an environment that allows for it. 

The Stormers were that team for the past two years. They continue to play an enticing brand of rugby, thanks to John Dobson’s liberal view of the game and his commitment to aesthetic value as well as winning. 

The Stormers have four straight home games to come, and should comfortably be in the URC play-off mix. While they’re still alive, they remain a realistic title contender.

Through their lead, the Bulls and Lions have joined the pursuit of a rounded game, and even the beleaguered Sharks are on their own journey towards that goal.

While the coaches and players deserve credit for this collective approach to higher standards, the URC itself has necessitated that teams play a varied game. Conditions in the multi-national competition vary wildly, and to thrive requires adaptability on the field, but also in mindsets. 

Edwill Van Der Merwe of the Lions with the ball during the URC Championship match between the Lions and Sharks at Emirates Airline Park on 2 March 2024 in Johannesburg. (Photo: Sydney Seshibedi/Gallo Images)

Finding their sweet spot 

The Lions, a team made up of newcomers, and journeymen veterans, have found their sweet spot. Their play, epitomised by the brilliance and energy of halfback Sanele Nohamba, best reflects the positive state of SA rugby. 

He is figuratively and literally at the centre of their strong season, with wily and athletic play at either scrumhalf or flyhalf, and his perennially sunny attitude. He must be a joy to play alongside. 

The Lions were superb on their way to a 40-10 win over the Sharks, with Nohamba the fulcrum around which they operated. He scored a try and created two more. In between he buzzed like an overhead power line (when there is power) and was a constant source of angst for the Sharks.

And when Nohamba was withdrawn as an injury precaution in the third quarter, replacement Morne van den Berg carried on supplying Nohamba’s levels of energy and skill. It’s no wonder both have been invited to a Springbok alignment camp in Cape Town this week. 

“I’ve said before, it’s simply amazing having guys of that calibre and character in the team,” Lions coach Ivan van Rooyen said after the match.

“The great thing about players like Sanele and Morne is that they’re not just preoccupied with giving their all for the team, they are tough, mentally strong players, who make good decisions on the field.

“These guys are always ‘all-in’. Not to mention their versatility in terms of being able to cover more than one position and the ability to unlock defences and create scoring opportunities. It’s a privilege.” 

Embrose Papier of the Blue Bulls trying to run the ball off his line during the URC Bulls vs Stormers match at Loftus Versfeld on 2 March 2024. (Photo: Gordon Arons/Gallo Images)

Swagger and style

The Bulls of course, have also played with swagger and style this season. They occupy second spot on the URC standings after their 40-22 win over the Stormers that ended a seven-match losing streak against their old foes.

They had to end it at some stage, and they couldn’t have chosen a better occasion than a sold-out Loftus to underline their realistic title credentials. You get the feeling, if the Bulls don’t win the URC, the team that does, will have had to go through them at some stage.

White has steadily built a team over three seasons. They could’ve won the inaugural title back in 2022, when the Stormers just pipped them, and last year they fell at the quarterfinal stage to their old rivals.

They just seemed to lack a little belief, rather than personnel, in those defeats. But after last Saturday’s emphatic performance on a wet field after the thunderstorm had passed, they demonstrated mental and physical superiority over the Stormers for longer periods. The result was there for all to see.

“We will enjoy this. Sometimes the road is longer than it is wide,” White said after the win. “It’s taken a long road for us, but it was comprehensive today. Against a great defensive side, we scored four tries and had one disallowed. Defensively we kept them out.”

The Stormers were always on the back foot after the Bulls scored an early try, and were lurking menacingly with the Bulls leading 19-15 just after halftime. The Stormers were close to the Bulls line and had moments. In previous encounters, the Stormers had come from behind to upset the Bulls, but this time White’s men shut the door.

Read more in Daily Maverick: European Champions Cup kicks off as SA Rugby set to finalise lucrative equity deal

“A year or two ago, they would have scored in those plays they had on the tryline,” White said. “When we started this project, we did really well early on with a young group. We were always going to get better.

“Right at the end of the game, I doubted my call to put so many players on so early. I thought maybe I shot myself in the foot, there. But those are lessons I learn. The gains you get from putting those boys on for that time, giving them the experience of winning in front of 50,000 people is immeasurable.”

The experience of large crowds and high quality rugby is not only benefitting the Bulls though.

The Stormers and the Bulls are both still in contention in the European Champions Cup, and the Lions and Sharks also still playing for the title in the Challenge Cup. 

South African rugby, in terms of performance and personnel, is in rude health, from the Boks down. It will be fun while it lasts. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Colleen Dardagan says:

    Pity about the Sevens!

    • Steve Davidson says:

      That’s simply because the franchises aren’t letting their good players off, which is fair. It should eventually – like the fact that lots of top SA players are working overseas – allow the younger ones to come through and show how SA plays so well. Be patient and not so freaking negative!!!!!!!!!

  • Dragon Slayer says:

    All good and hopefully soon the Sharks will realise that rugby is played on grass and not on paper🤔

  • Steve Davidson says:

    One of your best posts ever, Craig, IMHO. My only addition? The WHOLE OF RUGBY UNION (sorry to shout) is on the up, and it’s thanks to the SA teams having shrugged off the cloying influence of the NZRU (and to a certain extent the English RFU) and had a huge influence on the way the game is played. Rassie particularly has done some amazing things – along with Jacques and the rest of the team – in his innovation, and particularly the addition to the dour old Bok way of playing of the fantastic backs who add a whole new dimension. I really cannot wait for 2027 and the next RWC on dry fields – unlike France – where they stand a really good chance of winning three in a row. And as you say about the Bulls it will be one hell of a team that beats them!

  • Michael Coleman says:

    What a pleasure to read so positive an article. For me as a former ref ( once upon a time “the referee is the sole judge of fact and Law”) a real pleasure also to see a ref make decisions and speed the game – no five minute debate with n video views. Well played ref!

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