New format may benefit Springboks

INTERNATIONAL RUGBY: South Africans say time zone differences and travel place them at a disadvantage in Super 12 competition, but the field may soon level out


Thu, Feb 24, 2005 - Page 20

South African teams are yet to break the Australasian lock on the Super 12, and this year offers a final chance before the southern hemisphere's premier provincial rugby championship expands.

South Africans have traditionally claimed that time zone differences and travel place them at a disadvantage in Super 12, while observers point to internal politics, contentious race quotas, and a reticence to adopt new trends as likely factors in the African's disappointing performance.

Those issues remain, but a year before a fifth African franchise and a fourth from Australia join the competition to make up a Super 14, South Africa's outlook on this Super 12 campaign is tinged with optimism.

The Springboks' victory in last year's Tri-Nations championship has shown that South African teams can match their Australian and New Zealand rivals in a home-and-away format.

And in pre-season matches in Britain and Ireland, the Stormers beat Wasps, the Cats beat Saracens, the Bulls beat Ulster and the Sharks beat Harlequins 31-3.

Only three teams -- the ACT Brumbies from Australia's capital of Canberra and top New Zealand provinces Auckland and Canterbury -- have won the Super 12 in its nine years, and all remain favorites for 2005.

For the Brumbies, the quest for another title is a mission made more urgent by concern the development of a fourth Australian team will dilute the strength of the country's existing franchises.

South Africa is seen as less likely to suffer from expansion because it has strong rugby areas which are yet untapped and a regional reorganization might benefit existing teams.

Springboks assistant coach Allister Coetzee believes the talent exists in South Africa to claim the last Super 12 trophy.

"I hope we can have two teams in the semifinals," Coetzee said. "Our players are good enough to be right up there."

Each South African franchise will have eight black players in their 30-man squads and SARFU chief executive Johan Prinsloo believes those players will join highly competitive teams.

"SA Rugby is confident that our players will hold their own," Prinsloo said.

International oddsmaker Tattersalls has the Bulls and Stormers joint sixth favorites at 20-1 to win this year's tournament, rates the Sharks eighth and the Johannesburg-based Cats likely to fight out last place.

South Africans dispute those rankings and consider the Bulls strong playoff candidates.

The Stormers are the best balanced of the South African teams with an all-Springbok backline formed around experienced flyhalf Gaffie du Toit.

But the Stormers, under coach Gert Smal, had a pre-season blow when hooker David Britz was withdrawn from the squad after failing a drugs test.

The defending champion Brumbies are the strongest of the Australian teams, though Wallabies flyhalf Matt Giteau will miss some early matches after breaking his hand in a trial match.

New coach Laurie Fisher, whose predecessor David Nucifora is now with the Auckland Blues, has great depth at his disposal.

Wallabies captain and scrumhalf George Gregan, pivot Steve Larkham, center Stirling Mortlock, prop Bill Young give the Brumbies immense strength and experience.

"There aren't many tougher tasks in rugby than to win the Super 12," Mortlock said. "It's a big mountain to climb."

For perennial underachievers the New South Wales Waratahs, rugby league converts and Wallabies Mat Rogers and Lote Tuqiri loom as the Sydney-based team's key players.

The Queensland Reds made the semifinals in three of the first six Super 12 tournaments, but have missed out the past four years when injuries and retirements exposed a lack of depth in some key positions.

"There is hardly a need for any extra motivation to win the Super 12 but the fact that it is the final year certainly gives it a special meaning," said captain Elton Flatley. "We're totally focused on getting Queensland engraved on that trophy before the competition expands."

New Zealand's Super 12 season will be overshadowed by the impending tour of the British and Irish Lions.

All Blacks coach Graham Henry has taken a personal interest in the preparation of the five New Zealand franchises as he tries to build a national lineup to repel the Lions.

While British observers condemn the Super 12 as a "fluffy" style of rugby, Henry is sure it will adequately prepare the All Blacks for the Lions tour.

"I think it's a marvelous competition. I know the Northern Hemisphere [critics] say its nothing but a glorified game of 15-man sevens, but I think the things we did on the northern tour last year reflect some of the stuff that happened in the Super 12."

Auckland and Canterbury are expected to lead the Kiwi challenge again, while the Wellington Hurricanes, led by All Blacks skipper Tana Umaga, are destined to improve on their 11th placing last season.

The Blues won the first three Super 12s and again in 2003, and boast dangerous attacking backline options in Joe Rokocoko, Doug Howlett, Carlos Spencer and Mils Muliaina.

The Crusaders, runnersup last season, have won four Super 12 titles. They'll be led this year by All Blacks flanker Richie McCaw and can draw on the vast experience of scrumhalf Justin Marshall, flyhalf Andrew Mehrtens and match-winning goalkicker Daniel Carter.

Otago captain Anton Oliver will become the first New Zealander to play 100 Super 12 games when the Highlanders open against the Blues on Friday.

Prop Matt Stevens was named in England's starting lineup on Tuesday for the first time ahead of this weekend's Six Nations match against Ireland.

Stevens, 22, is the only change to the side that lost 18-17 to France on Feb. 13.

He takes over from injured forward Phil Vickery, who broke his arm last Saturday, for Sunday's match at Lansdowne Road.

Stevens earned two England caps as a replacement last summer in New Zealand.

"I'm thrilled for Matt and am confident he will grasp this opportunity and make his mark against Ireland," England coach Andy Robinson said. "He has impressed in training and has been building up to this for some time now."

Prop Duncan Bell, who was called up to the senior squad for the first time this week, was named on the bench along with center Ollie Smith and flyhalf Andy Goode.

"All three players have shown outstanding form of late, most recently in the England A win against France A and for their club," Robinson said. "Selection beckons when players demonstrate such consistent ability."

Flyhalf Charlie Hodgson and center Olly Barkley kept their starting spots. Both missed three penalties each and Hodgson also sent a drop goal wide against France.

Teenager Mathew Tait, who started in England's 11-9 opening Six Nations loss to Wales, was again absent from the team.

Ireland is favorite to win the tournament and its first Grand Slam since 1948.

"This game against Ireland will be massive," Robinson said. "We recognize it's a must-win game for us this season."


Wales made two changes yesterday for its Six Nations match against France as it bids for its third straight win.

Wales coach Mike Ruddock selected Kevin Morgan on the right wing, replacing the injured Hal Luscombe, while Ryan Jones was chosen at blindside flanker over Jonathan Thomas, who was dropped to the bench.

"Due to his impressive performances from the bench, Kevin was very much in the selection mix anyway, and the unfortunate injury to Hal gives him the chance to start," Ruddock said.

"Now that Ryan Jones has recovered from injury, we have increased the options in the back row. Jonathan Thomas is unlucky to lose his spot after performing well against Italy and scoring a try, but such is the competition for places that every position is debated in detail."

Rhys Williams replaces Morgan on the bench.

Wales beat England 11-9 in Cardiff, then crushed Italy 38-9 in Rome. Defending champion France also is unbeaten, but Wales has won in Paris twice in its last three visits.

"For this particular game, we felt we might not always be afforded the open spaces out wide we were able to exploit against Italy, so an extra big ball carrier in the back-row [Jones] is thought to be necessary on this occasion," Ruddock said.


France coach Bernard Laporte made four changes to his team to face Wales in an upcoming Six Nations clash that is already shaping up as a key match.

Laporte, renowned for continually reshaping his team, decided against sticking with the same players which helped win 18-17 against England at Twickenham two weeks ago.

"If we need a starting team, we continue to function with the idea of 22 players as we do not forget that those who came on in the second-half at Twickenham helped to boost the team," team manager Jo Maso told reporters at the Marcoussis training camp.

At fullback, Julien Laharrague makes his debut in place of Pepito Elhorga, who is dropped, while at center Yannick Jauzion comes in for Brian Liebenberg.

Winger Aurelien Rougerie returns from injury and Yannick Nyanga steps in at third row -- the only change Laporte made to his pack. Nyanga did well coming off the bench against Scotland and England.

At flanker, Serge Betsen has recovered from a knock picked up against England and will add his strength and drive to Laporte's team.

Dimitri Yachvili, scorer of all France's points at Twickenham, continues at scrumhalf alongside flyhalf Yann Delaigue -- who is still keeping Frederic Michalak out of the team.

France and Wales have won their opening games and Saturday's showdown at Stade de France is billed in some quarters as a potential Grand Slam decider.


David Dal Maso replaced injured Mauro Bergamasco and veteran Christian Stoica rejoined the Azzurri for his 62nd cap as coach John Kirwan announced Italy's squad Tuesday for its upcoming Six Nations match against Scotland in Edinburgh.

Italy is coming off consecutive home losses against Ireland and Wales and badly needs a win against Scotland on Saturday before playing England and France to avoid finishing last in the competition.

Bergamasco, who fractured his left cheekbone during the match with Wales, is out for the rest of the European tournament.

South African-born Roland De Marigny will be Italy's kicker.

Former Wallaby captain Nick Farr-Jones has chided the International Rugby Board for what he considers a lack of effort to develop the game globally.

Farr-Jones told a news conference in Suva, Fiji that the IRB should stop focusing on rugby's top teams and concentrate on developing second and third tier nations, the Fiji Times newspaper reported Tuesday.

"They just need to get off their backsides and start employing new concepts to be able to develop the game," Farr-Jones, who led Australia to the World Cup title in 1991, was quoted saying.

"By the looks of it the richer countries get stronger and stronger while the weaker ones stay as they are."

Farr-Jones said rugby would have to alter its strategy to compete with soccer, which was a truly global game and had a broad development policy.

"We saw that soccer is doing very well in that area of development which was evident at the [2002] World Cup," he said, listing the semifinal runs of Turkey and South Korea in that tournament as evidence of soccer's global development.

"If I was at the IRB I would select 10 very well developed nations in the game and give them the responsibility of helping and nurturing second and third tier countries."

Farr-Jones, who was in Fiji on business, said he hoped to raise the issue with IRB later this year.