Will the Golden Sharks devour the Ludekrous Bulls?
Economists, it is often joked in financial circles, are there only to make the weather man look good.
Those jokers really should crack a few about rugby pundits as well. In fact, those among us who make a living out of trying to predict which way the oval ball will bounce very often make economists and even weather men look like veritable prophets.
This year is no different.
Less than two weeks ago the prevailing theory was that the Bulls would pretty much walk the South African Super Rugby conference this year.
On the face of it, it was an easy call to make. They had a settled squad with more than a dozen Springboks to choose from and were the very definition of the word continuity when it came to team management. Also, they were seriously impressive in their pre-season games against the Cheetahs and England’s Saracens, aka Saffacens.
The Sharks, those learned forecasts went on, would be also-rans. They flew well under the radar in pre-season and too many disruptions and distractions would have accompanied their changing of colours (swopping White for Gold) in the off-season.
Today you’ll be hard pressed to find a single paid-for opinionista willing to put his name next to a piece of writing that gives those same Bulls as much as a sniff against those same Sharks when the two sides meet at what used to be known as Fortress Loftus this coming Saturday.
The Bulls, it turns out, are no-shows this year. The whistle goes and for 80 minutes you see 15 once-proud individuals get thrown around like dog toys. They still insist on playing a forward-orientated game, but their pack has more passengers than a packed Putco bus.
It’s so bad that when we ran a poll on our site this week asking you where these Bulls would end up this season, an overwhelming 65% of you said “bottom half of the log”. Those pundits who had them down as champs just the other day probably all agree.
If we didn’t know any better, so would we.
We are tempted to tell the 11% who said the Bulls would end up in this year’s playoffs a harsh truth. If you want to see how a bunch of clueless rugby players slowly galvanise into a unit; watch team confidence grow at the same time as crowd figures, and a bunch of no-hopers transforms first into playoff contenders and then into trophy winners, then don’t watch this year’s Super Rugby tournament. Instead, take a highlights package of your coach’s career with the Bulls and watch it backwards.
News out of Durban this week is much better. Just this weekend they were able to flex some serious muscle as their pack took the Lions apart in atrocious conditions, allowing Springbok flyhalf Pat Lambie to take complete control of the game with the ball in either his hands or on his boot.
It gets even better going forward. They get some serious Springbok firepower joining them in the next couple of weeks as Frans Steyn, JP Pietersen and Ryan Kankowski fly in from Japan. There is even talk that Beast Mtwarira’s injury is not as bad as once thought and that the big prop could also be back on the field in less than a week.
We have to agree. It’s tough to see the Pretoria side turn all that negativity around in the space of a week and win this weekend’s encounter against the tail-up Durbanites.
But – we didn’t vote in our poll. Form is far too fickle a mistress for us to have done so.
Writing the Bulls off already? You would have done the same thing in 2007 when they won their first Super Rugby title. Back then they lost in two out of their first three outings, including an embarrassing home loss to a newbie, no-name Western Force team.
Talking up the Sharks? You would have done so even much deeper into last year’s season. In 2014 they won seven out of their first eight encounters. But they burnt almost all of their fuel in doing so, and while they had enough points to get them into the playoffs, they could only scrape past the Highlanders at home in the quarterfinals before taking a 32-point hammering at the hands of the Crusaders in the next week’s semi.
The point is this: don’t make any long-term calls based on what you’ve seen so far. It may turn out to have meant nothing at all.
Sure. The Sharks – a team that feeds off confidence – will feel much better about themselves after taking a four-try bonus-point on Saturday and throwing it in the face of Mother Nature. But that was last week.
Not only do they not want to play their star players into the ground again and burn their own fuel for later in 2015, they don’t want to burn the Boks’ for later in this World Cup year either. Nice and easy is what we ask of them, even if it means they don’t rocket to the top of the Super Rugby log. They will be there or thereabouts when it comes to the business end, they are just too strong not to.
As for the Bulls, there is no reason for them not to go on and thrive this year either. What is needed, though, is for their brains trust to put egos to one side and admit that they have problems.
Their scrum has been one of the worst in the competition for the last three years, and to fix it may mean new personnel (on and off the field) and with it new technique at that vital set phase.
Same goes for those close-in ball-carriers so much of their game plan depends on. They have to figure out why they don’t breach the advantage line as they are expected to, and if they can’t find an answer, perhaps it’s time to back those talented backs (which does not include Grant Hattingh) to get around defences instead.
It is the Bulls’ own Naas Botha who once told us: “The Currie Cup isn’t won in May” (now the equivalent of August…). Similarly Super Rugby isn’t lost in February. All that is needed is for those buried heads to be pulled out of the Loftus sand.
Here are our teams of the week:
Note: our weekly teams are selected on the past weekend’s action only, so overall season form is not a factor. Players in teams with a bye are then obviously not considered.
Super XV for week 2:
15. Jesse Kriel (Bulls), 14. Taqele Naiyaravoro (Waratahs), 13. Conrad Smith (Hurricanes), 12. Charlie Ngatai (Chiefs), 11. Dillyn Leyds (Stormers), 10. Colin Slade (Crusaders), 9. Cobus Reinach (Sharks), 8. Jerome Kaino (Blues), 7. Michael Hooper (Waratahs), 6. Adam Thomson (Reds), 5. Lopeti Timani (Rebels), 4. Luke Romano (Crusaders), 3. Jannie du Plessis (Sharks), 2. Bismarck du Plessis, 1. Reg Goodes (Hurricanes).
Bok Barometer for week 2:
15. Jesse Kriel (Bulls), 14. Odwa Ndungane (Sharks), 13. Juan de Jongh (Stormers), 12. Damien de Allende (Stormers), 11. Dillyn Leyds (Stormers), 10. Pat Lambie (Sharks), 9. Cobus Reinach (Sharks), 8. Duane Vermeulen (Stormers), 7. Lappies Labuschagne (Bulls), 6. Marcel Coetzee (Sharks), 5. Pieter-Steph du Toit (Sharks), 4. Martin Muller (Lions), 3. Jannie du Plessis (Sharks), 2. Bismarck du Plessis (Sharks), 1, Dale Chadwick (Sharks).
Match of the week:
The very first match of week two set an example that no one else could follow. Week one’s two top performers, the Chiefs and the Brumbies, met in Hamilton and in those 80 minutes neither side would give an inch. In the end it was only a last-minute penalty by All Black flyhalf Aaron Cruden that separated the teams.
Here are the highlights:
Please note that all video footage is for the website only and is rights-restricted, and therefore only available in regions that fall within SuperSport’s broadcast footprint.
Try of the week:
For the second week running we saw the Stormers’ new wing Dillyn Leyds take full advantage of broken play. This time it was enough to win our try of the week award.
Here it is:
Quote of the week:
“The refs have a lot of money hey…to let those guys spend three weeks here reffing our teams,” Johan Ackermann on Aussie refs taking charge of Super Rugby derbies in South Africa.
Here is this week’s look at what players got up to on Twitter:
Herd this one?
Malakai Fekitoa was so impressed with his sheep catching skills that he shared a couple of “action shots”. We’re not so sure he’d do well in the Free State…
Jean de Villiers not only celebrated his birthday this week, but was welcomed as the newest ambassador of Laureus. Veels geluk liewe Jean… We wonder if he wished for a speedy recovery from his injury.
Kings Park Aquatic Centre
Kings Park was drenched on Saturday and the Sharks v Lions was in real danger of being called off. Doesn’t this picture bring back memories of ’95?
Goodes to be home
Reg Goodes may have been born in Witbank, but he is a Kiwi now. Or is he? The Hurricane used the Rustenburg sun to show his teammates a decent braai while they were preparing to face the Bulls.
The Brumbies reveal their karaoke favourites (and sing them too) for our friends at FoxSports:
The Hurricanes took a rather different approach in their Super Rugby ad for New Zealand TV, trying to get people to the game.
One weak suspension
Just when we thought that Super Rugby could go through a fortnight without any controversy, in steps Sanzar and their inexplicable ways of handling disciplinary questions.
In a bizarre twist of fate we had three Kiwi players all sanctioned for striking opponents, and lo and behold, Sanzar found a way of confusing us all on how such sanctions should be handled.
Ironically in this case it was a South African judicial officer who meted out the punishments, but how he got to his findings we’ll never know.
Hayden Triggs, who bloodied Duane Vermeulen’s face with a punch, was handed a one-week ban because, among other things, he admitted guilt, had a good disciplinary record and because of the impact the red card had on his side’s chances.
Yes you read that right? So immediately the question is what would have happened if the Blues had won the game?
Surely an act of foul play, whether in the first or 80th minute, should be handled with the same yardstick? Or does Sanzar have a sliding scale on whether or not players do damage early or late?
Then look at Ben Franks two-week suspension for hitting Highlanders prop Josh Hohneck twice during their match.
“The player submitted that he was attempting to remove the Highlanders player from the wrong side of maul,” Rob Stelzner, the judicial officer said in his assessment.
But two strikes? One may have helped move the player but the second – “reckless” in the judicial officer’s assessment, was good enough only for two weeks.
And compare it to Kane Hames, who got five weeks for punching Crusaders lock Dominic Bird in the face?
All we can ask once again – and it unfortunately is asked every year – is: Where is the consistency?
Not to be sniffed at
One of the more bizarre stories of the week is that of Queensland Reds star League convert Karmichael Hunt, who was arrested for supplying cocaine to friends and team-mates.
Not that sport doesn’t already have enough problems with its drug-culture, but this sort of thing is rather unseen in rugby.
Hunt will appear in court on March 5, along with Gold Coast Titans players Beau Falloon and Jamie Dowling.
Strangely though, the Reds have been fighting their own internal battles whether or not to stand him down from training – because the incident happened while he was in Rugby League.
Never mind the PR disaster that is waiting to happen for them if he does play.
Sometimes you wonder if rugby folk are living in the same world after all?
Get well soon
Our well-wishes go to Shaun Veldsman, the international TMO who was assaulted on his way home from the Stormers-Blues game and stabbed on Saturday night.
While the act itself is a cowardly act of criminal capacity, we hope Shaun can recover well enough to take his place in rugby stadiums again.
A firm favourite among journalists, Veldsman is always willing to try and explain decisions, defend his own as well as others, and offer clarification when it is needed.
And above all of that, he even once lost a bet to a journalist and arrived at a rugby stadium a week later with Robertson’s best wine as payment.
Get well soon Veldtie, rugby needs you!
We couldn’t have been the only ones that started humming along to that old Dean Martin ditty when this happened:
“Tell me quick, ain’t that a kick in the head…”