Gvain Rich - SuperSport
Johannesburg - The Vodacom Bulls, now assured of the South African conference title, have taken their place in a three-way log jam at the top of the overall Super Rugby log with two matches to play in the league phase.
According to the supersport.com website, however, although their impressive win over the Southern Kings at Loftus at the weekend has put them within two points of the table topping Chiefs, and they have a great chance of finishing in pole position and thus securing home ground advantage in both potential play-off games, they might also have ended the round feeling they still have a significant obstacle to overcome.
Given the off-field shenanigans in the Shark Tank just recently, the Bulls might have been justified in thinking that there was potential for the Sharks to just go through the paces in their final games and be easy pickings. That their Loftus opponents on Saturday will be anything but push-overs though was underlined by the way they fought out a narrow 22-20 win over the Blues at Growthpoint Kings Park.
John Plumtree has gone as coach but his legacy remains in the form of the awesome pack that he assembled, created and coached, and which at the weekend was wholly responsible for the win that brought some much needed pleasure to suffering Sharks fans. If the Sharks backline wasn’t still so woefully under-strength, the hosts would have won by rugby’s equivalent of the metaphorical country mile, and the match underlined where it has gone wrong for the Durban franchise this year.
To put it simply, the injuries have just had a massive impact, as they have on the Stormers, and it isn’t a coincidence that the Sharks pack that was so impressive against the Blues was back to near full-strength – just Pieter-Steph du Toit was missing – and had key players who have been missing firing again.
Willem Alberts carried on from where he left off playing for the Springboks against Samoa, Bismarck du Plessis contributed both as a player and a stand-in captain when he came on late in the game, and then there was the anvil of past Sharks successes, the front-row.
Kyle Cooper started ahead of Du Plessis but again contributed more than his fair share to the win, and Springbok props Beast Mtawarira, who has also missed a significant part of the season, and Jannie du Plessis alongside him joined him in fronting the assault. In this sense it was like a rewind to some significant moments of the Plumtree era, such as in the 2010 Currie Cup final.
Was the panic that led to the change in coaching personnel at the Sharks justified? Time will answer that question, once it becomes clear where the franchise is heading, but if you consider that co-coaches Grant Bashford and Hugh Reece-Edwards are in many ways an extension of Plumtree, the win over the Blues can be seen as a triumph for the old guard.
But what really matters is what the passion that was shown by Jannie du Plessis, who reacted from the bench at the final whistle in a fashion that wasn’t quite unlike the emotion exhibited by Australian captain James Horwill earlier in the day, could mean for the Bulls. If they got tripped up by the Sharks in Pretoria this coming weekend it wouldn’t be the first time they’ve lost an important home game near the end of the season to that team.
The Sharks backs, so sorely missing the influence of big names such as JP Pietersen, Frans Steyn and even others such as Meyer Bosman and Paul Jordaan, could be up against it if the Bulls win more ball than the Blues did at the weekend. But then the combination that beat the Blues has now played a game together and they should be better at Loftus than they were in Durban.
Once the Bulls are finished with the Sharks, they head to Cape Town for a big end of season north/south derby against the Stormers. With all their injury problems, and if you go through the players that are missing you realise that two thirds of the starting team is absent, you might also have expected the Bulls to come to Cape Town as favourites.
They may still, but they’re also being impacted by injuries now, not to mention the departure of some players for overseas, and the Stormers showed against the Cheetahs that even depleted they remain a tough team to beat at Newlands. They have in fact only lost once there this season – to the Crusaders on Easter Saturday – and the win over the Cheetahs was the second upset result in the Stormers’ favour in the space of three matches.
They also helped put a spoke in the Reds’ campaign before the break for the international window, which is why they and the Sharks can now be regarded as spoilers. The Sharks’ win over the Blues effectively put that team out of the competition race, and the Cheetahs, with four guaranteed log points to come courtesy of their last round bye, are now virtually assured of a top six finish.
Indeed, a bonus point against the Blues in Bloemfontein this coming weekend should be enough to do the trick. However, coach Naka Drotske will probably be the first to admit that his men will have to significantly lift on their performance against the Stormers or it is possible the Blues might pass them. And if the Stormers and Sharks get full house five point log hauls from their last two games, they could even still sneak into the play-offs ahead of the Cheetahs too.
Certainly if you just watched the Cheetahs play the Stormers you wouldn’t think they were top six material and the knowledge that they were so comprehensively outplayed by a team that is so depleted by injury might have a dramatic impact on their confidence moving forward.
Two teams that don’t lack confidence at the moment are the Chiefs and Crusaders. Both were in excellent form this weekend in dispatching the Hurricanes and Highlanders respectively, and while the New Zealand conference trophy looks like it belongs to the Chiefs, the Christchurch clash between these two teams on Friday is not one to be missed.