South Africa will have no sides in the semi-finals of Super Rugby for only the second time in 16 years, but it could be just the start of the country’s declining fortunes in the competition as teams are decimated by player departures.
There have been mitigating circumstances to the failures in 2019 with the Lions, Sharks and Stormers in particular being hit by injuries to key players.
The rise of the Jaguares as a force meant the Argentine side finished top of the South African Conference and bagged the precious home-ground advantage in the knockout stages that the Lions had used to reach the three previous finals.
It is fair to say that the South African teams deserved little more, however, with all four proving too inconsistent, home and away, and at times lacking the skill and street-smarts to go with their traditional brawn.
The highlight of the season was an emerging Bulls team that ran the Hurricanes close in their quarter-final in Wellington on Saturday before losing 35-28 but is now also the perfect illustration of the challenges facing South African rugby.
Given time to develop, this could potentially be a championship team in a few year’s time but it will have the guts ripped out of it going into 2020.
Springboks flyhalf Handre Pollard, powerful number eight Duane Vermeulen, locks RG Snyman, Lood de Jager and Jason Jenkins, and centre Jesse Kriel, have all signed for overseas teams.
Even promising youngsters Eli Snyman, Hanro Liebenberg and Hendre Stassen will be lost as the lure of the pound, euro and Yen trump the rand and the challenge of Super Rugby.
“Ten of the guys are leaving us, so we’re going to struggle next year I think,” Bulls coach Pote Human told reporters in the wake of their quarter-final loss.
“It’s very disappointing because it’s my first year as head coach of the Bulls and I really thought if we could keep this team for another two years it would be great, but unfortunately that’s not the case.
“We will have to look at it. It’s really difficult. They stopped the Bok contracts, so it’s all through the franchises now to try keep the guys, but the money is just too big in Japan and Europe.”
The Bulls are not alone, all four South African franchises will face the same challenge and will have to rebuild with new talent in what will be a massive test of rugby depth in the country.
But it does not end there. Whatever outstanding talent emerges next year is likely to be an immediate target for overseas clubs, and so the cycle continues.
Before there has been a trickle of players leaving, now there is a flood, and South Africa’s teams face an era of constant rebuilding, which will limit their competiveness in Super Rugby.