Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – A good captain usually senses when
the miffed coach is going to read the riot act, and the Blue Bulls’ Gary Botha
is probably no different.
“Pine (Pienaar) will be putting the sjambok
in this week,” the veteran hooker suggested on television, immediately after
his side had crashed 39-27 to defending Absa Currie Cup champions the Sharks at
Loftus on Saturday evening.
The result brought the once-imperious Bulls
back to earth with a nasty bump, after a deceptive revival in the previous
three weeks when they saw off relative minnows the Leopards, Griquas and Pumas.
Back against known “big gun” opposition,
however, and the Bulls found themselves in the soup once more -- if anything,
flattering slightly in the 12-point margin of defeat and somehow stealing a
four-try bonus point at the death after trailing by a particularly gory 39-15
with eight minutes left.
The Pretoria-based outfit have bossed the
Currie Cup over the past decade, winning it five times since 2002 (including a
share of the honours with the Cheetahs in 2006) and being losing finalists on
another two occasions.
Say what you like about the rather
different, rookie-laden character of the competition in this World Cup year, it
still gives some pretty strong clues to the regional balance of power in South
Africa, and for the Bulls things do not look especially sparkly for the short-
to medium-term future.
Remember that they have already bade
farewell to such icons as Victor Matfield, Fourie du Preez and Bakkies Botha,
so it not as though their ranks will suddenly be hugely swelled once more by
top-bracket Springboks come next season.
Besides, the starting line-up they fielded
against the Sharks was not exactly shy of Boks anyway: there were still nine of
them, ranging from some very recent to slightly more distant ones.
Based on the fact that their tight five featured
four internationals, plus Juandre Kruger who has picked up invaluable
second-row experience in the bump and grind of the English Premiership with
Northampton, I had tipped the Bulls to be just too strong in the boiler room
for a Sharks pack sporting only two Test caps in Keegan Daniel and Jean Deysel,
and both of them loose forwards.
Bad call, on my part ... instead the Sharks
gave brighter glimpses of an encouraging future in Durban with their mostly callow
front five actually getting the better of Botha, Dean Greyling, Flip van der
Merwe and company.
This front-foot luxury allowed Freddie
Michalak and Meyer Bosman to pull some effective strings in the key Nos 10 and
12 channels – the French playmaker made a few gaffes at times but was deadly
again off the kicking tee – and for wings Lwazi Mvovo and Sibusiso Sithole to
cash in on precious time and space occasionally as well.
It wasn’t all bleak for the Bulls, because
they showed heart during their late rally, produced flashes of crowd-pleasing
counter-attacking, and also some forceful ball-carries from the likes of No 8
CJ Stander, a 21-year-old who may just provide some useful counter-balance in
coming seasons to the exit of so many world-class performers from Loftus.
But if the “sjambok” is going to come out
as the Bulls languish in sixth place on the log with four losses to accompany
their four wins, coach Pienaar might do well to also take certain less violent
measures, if you like, by sending his forwards back to the proverbial classroom
to swot up their breakdown laws.
It is an area where the Bulls have
consistently come a cropper this season, and their harsh treatment at the hands
of Mark Lawrence this time could hardly be branded a vendetta by the official:
others before him have “pinged” them to virtually the same extent, suggesting a
pattern and a serious problem.
They were playing catch-up from very early
on in the match, with Bosman banging over three long-range penalties in only
the first 11 minutes and then missing another in the 15th, with ruck
or scrum offences the primary reasons for the Sharks’ gleefully-accepted gifts.
The Bulls have 18 points from eight
matches, and are now five points adrift of both the Cheetahs, in fourth, and
Griquas in fifth.
They have a critical three weeks ahead,
with a visit to Bloemfontein on Saturday, then a home tussle with second-placed
Western Province and an away Highveld derby with the table-topping Lions.
It is possible that nothing less than two
wins will be their requirement in the period mentioned if they are to stave off
the rare indignity of failing to make the semi-finals cut.
And yes, a bit less rule-book naivety would
do their teetering cause no harm at all ...
This weekend’s fixtures:
Friday: Lions v Griquas, Johannesburg.
Saturday: Western Province v Leopards, Cape Town; Sharks v Pumas, Durban;
Cheetahs v Blue Bulls, Bloemfontein