South African rugby is at a crossroads as the Super Rugby playoffs loom.
On the line will be the reputation and future of the nation that has been world champions twice.
Looking at this year’s tournament, things don’t look very hopeful.
In the current format of the competition, South Africa is only given three places in the eight-team playoff.
There will not be no more and no less.
And in playoff rugby anything can happen.
But on closer inspection, you get the real picture and it ain’t pretty.
On an overall log, the Lions give the nation the only real thing to proud of right now. They are top of the standings.
However, because of the conference format, that can’t even be seen as a plus.
The conference system sees teams only test themselves against their nearest rivals for the most part.
And for the Lions, that means playing the Bulls, the Cheetahs, the Kings, Sunwolves and Jaguares.
So is being top of that pile really an achievement?
The short answer is no.
Now the cream of the SA crop – the Lions, Sharks and Stormers – will have to go into to the unknown and face New Zealand sides who are ranked higher on the overall log even after playing mostly themselves.
That’s a scary thought.
But now – a week before crunch time – is the time to reflect and prepare for the big games.
It’s time to haal uit en wys.
Playing style issues and cohesion has been the main downfall of SA rugby teams, though.
The Sharks have been focused on defence, the Lions are more attacking while the Stormers have gone from a team who wanted to play “fearless rugby” to a side that has seemed to realise their limitations.
All three sides are expected to win their last round-robin games, but then what?
We’ll see next weekend how those approaches work for them.
And then it becomes a national issue.
Can those different styles be good for a Springbok side that has not made the most impressive start to life under Allister Coetzee?
They only produced good rugby in spells over the three-Test series against Ireland. And even though they won, more questions than answers were thrown up in the aftermath.
In this case, the different styles of rugby prevalent in our game helped him.
His defensive patterns paid off, his introduction of the Lions’ players saved us in the second Test and good old 10-man rugby won us the final game.
But against Australia, Argentina and world champions New Zealand it will be a test that will shake the convictions of Toetie, the players and the public.
It’s not going to be pretty, but nothing worth changing is going to be easy.