S15: SA rugby shows its health

2012-07-16 07:10

Cape Town – Whatever happens in the remaining three weekends of knockout fare in Super Rugby, South African rugby has affirmed its well-being by effectively having dominated the lion’s share of the 2012 competition.

Last year, the first of the new conference system, the ordinary-season programme – let’s face it, really the “marathon” part of the race -- ended with two sides apiece from South Africa, New Zealand and Australia qualifying for the playoffs.

But this season is the first to be fairly obviously bossed by one nation ... and that honour falls this country’s way as all of the overall log-winning Stormers plus Bulls and Sharks have made it through the six-team funnel.

They will be joined by the Chiefs and Crusaders from New Zealand and just one qualifier from Australia, defending champions the Reds, after Jake White’s Brumbies cruelly plummeted right out of contention on the last full-programme Saturday by crashing at home to the Blues without even a losing bonus point that would have ensured their onward passage.

The Stormers and Chiefs now bask in the luxury of a bye weekend ahead of their home semis while they await the outcomes of finals series qualifiers next Saturday between the Crusaders and Bulls (09:35, Christchurch) and Reds and Sharks (11:40, Brisbane).

It was a nervy old weekend for just about all the sides who started it in the playoffs hunt, with several of them failing to play to potential – the Stormers had some especially unexpected white-knuckle periods at Newlands against the modest Melbourne Rebels – as the various order-of-placing permutations clearly affected mindsets.

But at the end of it all South Africans were broadly entitled to a degree of smug satisfaction.

Considering the retirements of so many iconic Springbok figures at the end of last season, this was thought to be something a transitional year for our rugby, with the attached pitfalls that phenomenon can bring.

And while world champions the All Blacks will undoubtedly and rightly still be installed as favourites for the new-look Rugby Championship, the Super Rugby campaign thus far has shown South African rugby’s heart to be still beating strongly in most respects.

As Pierre Spies, the Bulls captain, noted in the immediate post-match television interview after his team had seen off the plucky Lions 37-20 at Loftus, some pundits had not tipped the Pretoria-based side to feature in the playoffs at all in 2012, so they have already exceeded expectations.

Their “punishment”, alas, for ending just above the Sharks is what seems the trickier overseas trek, to play the seven-time champion Crusaders in their own stronghold.

The Bulls have a pretty good modern home record against these foes ... but quite the opposite applies when it comes to tackling them abroad.

It was a tribute to the Lions’ resolve, in fact, that the Bulls found themselves not having the liberty of attempting to win without a bonus point, and thereby getting the Reds fixture in Brisbane instead (which goes to the Sharks who may have a more realistic chance of progressing, despite also coming off a debilitating long haul).

The game at Loftus was fast and fluid and, with the Lions right in it at 20-20 at the break, Spies and company simply had to gratefully bank every point on the scoreboard that came their way, and abandon possible thoughts of some cunning manipulation.

Although the Bulls rectified many of their first-half gremlins in a much more dominant and physically imposing second, the mediocrity of their scrummaging was exposed once more; it is something that will mightily interest the formidable Crusaders’ front-row arsenal of Messrs Crockett, Flynn and the two Franks brothers.

As for the Sharks, their comfortable 34-15 victory over the Cheetahs only provided further evidence of what a fickle side they can be: they were lethargic in the first 40 minutes and nine points adrift, but then galloped to a four-try haul in the second period.

If the quality of that second half can be repeated for the major portion of their game in Queensland, there is no reason why they should not come away with a win – they have already beaten the Reds once this season, 27-22 at Mr Price Kings Park in mid-March.

It would set them up for a cracking semi-final derby against the Stormers at Newlands, although the dice remains loaded against Keegan Daniel’s outfit, given the travel factor.

The Reds sweat for the moment on the fate of string-pulling Quade Cooper, who faces citing procedures before they will know whether he can take up arms against the KwaZulu-Natalians.

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