Robert du Preez leads in rugby’s year of the cockroach

The Sharks coach’s infamous cockroaches quote offered the perfect description of the South African teams’ season of Super Rugby. It was ugly, but somehow they refused to die.

Anyone who has lived in Durban has an inkling why cockroaches take pride of place as the city’s number one pests. 

Forget Joburg’s supposedly woes Parktown Prawns, the roaches in Durban mill around the place with impunity, check you skeef because they’ve probably been juicing and, when they get bored with raiding cupboards en masse, take a bird’s-eye view of things by flying around the joint.

So when Sharks coach Robert du Preez – in a moment typical of the irascibility that has seen him work with seven assistants in four years – christened his critics in the Durban media “a bunch of cockroaches”, he was digging deep as far as his insults chest was concerned.

But given the durability of cockroaches (never mind surviving nuclear explosions, apparently they can hold their breath for 40 minutes and live without their heads for a week), the former Northern Transvaal, Sharks and Springbok scrumhalf also paid his detractors the ultimate backhanded compliment.

And so, like cockroaches, they relentlessly put the spotlight on the scarcely disguised nepotism of Du Preez insisting on picking out-of-form son Rob ahead of Curwin Bosch to the point where the coach’s position may well be untenable, both from the results point of view and the arrogant manner in which he handled the fallout.

Du Preez’s take on his media critics may well be applied to the country’s four Super Rugby franchises: at no stage did any of them answer to the description of impressive throughout their respective campaigns, yet like roaches they somehow were there at the business end of the tournament.

With only the final round of the round-robin stages remaining, all four of our Super Rugby teams were somehow still in the running to make the quarterfinals. This was despite the fact that they’d allowed the Jaguares, the Argentine interlopers, to run away with the South African Conference en route to the final by crabs-in-a-bucketing their way through the competition.

Year of the cockroach

The only consistent thing about the South African effort in Super Rugby was inconsistency. Momentum in the race to make the playoffs, behind the Jaguares, changed hands almost on a weekly basis.

Despite boasting the nous and muscle brought by Schalk Brits and Duane Vermeulen’s arrival; sustained scrummaging excellence by props Lizo Gqoboka and Trevor Nyakane; the jaw-dropping skills of lock RG Snyman; improved tactical awareness by flyhalf Handré Pollard and centre Jesse Kriel; and the blockbuster running abilities of Warrick Gelant, Rosko Specman and Cornal Hendricks in the back three, the Bulls frequently found themselves on the wrong side of the line between playing conservatively and adventurously, often bringing three-point knives to try-scoring gunfights.

Eager to make up for losing more senior players to overseas clubs, the Lions dispensed with the box altogether in a season marked by the kind of lateral thinking that saw hooker Malcolm Marx finish matches at flank, lock Stephan Lewies put in a few shifts at blindside flank, No. 8 Hacjivah Dayimani turned up at inside centre and flyhalf Elton Jantjies put in a stint in the midfield.

Apart from seemingly not knowing if they were a direct side with an offloading game, or a coast to coast team, the Sharks wasted a lot of time – and potential wins – on Du Preez stubbornly playing his son instead of Bosch, an oversight that put the shackles on an explosive outside backs line-up of Lukhanyo Am, Makazole Mapimpi, Aphelele Fassi and Sbu Nkosi.

The Stormers had the most current Springboks in their squad, yet throughout the season they were a curious case of arrested development, as much because of a litany of injuries as their misguided faith in Jean-Luc du Plessis and Josh Stander at flyhalf, and a pathological fear of the tryline (their 34 tries where the joint lowest in the competition).

Woefully low numbers

There is a temptation to consider the report back on the Super Rugby franchises a bit harsh, given the fact that the four franchises had never all been in with a shout at the knockout stages in the final round of the regular season.

But the Lions being the top try-scoring South African team and eighth on the overall list with 53 tries (20 behind the eventual winners, the Crusaders, at the same stage) also told a story. In this day of National Football League-esque rugby statistics, try-scoring isn’t the only way to gauge a team’s worth, but it does point to the South African sides’ collective lack of ambition (the Bulls, Sharks and Stormers were at 12, 13 and 14 on that list).

Ultimately, that is an indictment on our coaches. Robbie Fleck (Stormers), Pote Human (Bulls) and Swys de Bruin (Lions) should be grateful for Du Preez’s unabashedly self-serving antics at the Sharks.

By picking one of those unwinnable fights with the rugby hacks, Du Preez put a target on his back and drew attention away from the rest of the more amiable Super Rugby coaches despite the fact that they all underperformed this year.

The departing Fleck had to concede that his tenure may well have set back, let alone failed to advance, a talented Stormers team. Despite the Bulls running the Hurricanes dangerously close in their quarterfinal, the feeling was still that Human didn’t do a Johan Ackermann by adding to the foundation left by New Zealander John Mitchell. 

And De Bruin – who at one stage had to abandon his team in New Zealand owing to stress – suspiciously looks like a career assistant coach. In fairness to him, though, the senior player movement at the Lions is the kind of musical chairs on which one can’t build any sort of team identity.

However, this being a Rugby World Cup year, one wonders if the South African on the street even cares about a Super Rugby our franchises haven’t won since 2010. The main question weighing on the minds of many is how the underwhelming returns of the Super Rugby teams will affect the Springboks’ World Cup campaign.

Building momentum

South African sport – rugby, in particular – thrives on momentum. Think back to the Lions and the Sharks taking turns making the Super 10 finals (the Lions won in 1993) in the three-year build-up to the 1995 World Cup win, and the Bulls and the Sharks contesting the Super 14 title ahead of the 2007 victory.

But without disrespecting Namibia, Italy and Canada – the other teams in the Springboks’ group in Japan – South Africa should have enough talent to “scrape” together a side strong enough to be competitive in four big games, the opener against defending champions New Zealand and the knockout stages.

Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus, having gathered his troops as early as the quarterfinal week, immediately went looking for positives from the four franchises’ reasonably early elimination from Super Rugby: “The positives outweigh the negatives. The big positive is that we almost have a bit of a pre-season because we have a month together, we’ve got three conditioning weeks and a Test match week.

“That’s a positive, because we can drill in a lot of stuff we couldn’t last year. If you think about last year, we actually had 280 minutes of training time before the England Test series. Now we’ve already had a week and a half’s training with almost the whole group.”

The downside, Erasmus said, was going into the business end of their season a touch underdone.

“The flipside is that you don’t get a lot of game time. But [conditioning coach] Aled [Walters] and I are trying to simulate game time in training. I know it’s not 100% game time, but we are trying to simulate match intensity.

“That’s going to be the great question, or thing, we have to get right. That’s why how we juggle the make-up of the players for the [five] games we have before the World Cup will be a challenge. In the middle of the season we thought our players had been overplayed, but now that they haven’t gone too far into the play-offs they might be a little underdone.”

If the South African teams’ Super Rugby season is anything to go by, the lines of approach have been nothing but blurred in a season one can only call the year of the cockroach.

If you want to republish this article please read our guidelines.