Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – Turn around our losing start quickly ... that
will be a key objective of both the Bulls and Sharks camps in the coming week.
Both supposed South African heavyweights were victims of
shock home reverses in round one of Super Rugby, with the side from Pretoria
not even managing a consolation bonus point, and they will cast their eyes
anxiously to follow-up fixtures next weekend.
It’s a vital chance for atonement – again at Loftus and
Kings Park -- as the Hurricanes and Lions respectively provide the opposition
The word “vital” can be an irritating cliché in sport, but
in this instance its usage is probably quite justified.
That is because neither team can afford to slip again, when
you consider that a week later they run into each other in a Highveld clash to
close out the month of February: nought from three in either case would be a
hammer blow to any quest to win the local conference and ideally also bank a
home semi-final in 2015.
Many observers, including yours truly, listed the Sharks and
Bulls pre-tournament as the country’s best finals series candidates this year,
and it would be idiotically premature to wish to revisit that theory at this
The Sharks, for instance, humbled by a four-try-grabbing
Cheetahs in Durban, ought to be significantly strengthened shortly by first-up
absentees like the Japan-based Frans Steyn, JP Pietersen and Ryan Kankowski and
hopefully on-the-mend home-based young dynamos such as Thomas du Toit and (a
bit deeper into the roster) Paul Jordaan.
They have already suffered the setback of seeing their
Springbok first choice loosehead prop Tendai Mtawarira limp off awkwardly with
a leg injury against the admirable party-spoilers from Bloemfontein, and
captain Bismarck du Plessis pulling out at the eleventh hour was unsettling to
rhythm as well – the juggernaut hooker says he expects to be fine for the Lions
The Sharks are embarking on a new era with Gary Gold and
Brendan Venter pulling the tactical strings – they sometimes ran the ball out from
surprisingly deep on Saturday with a bit of success – so teething troubles are
to be expected.
There is also a case for arguing that this was simply a
funny old first round, when you throw in such outcomes as the Crusaders’ home
shocker against the traditionally minnow Rebels.
Nevertheless, Sharks fans would have been irked to hear
SuperSport pundit and former Bok coach Nick Mallett observe: “The Cheetahs
out-enthused them ... (some) Sharks players looked very lethargic, frankly.”
But if that was still the more surprising of the two derby
results -- the Sharks so nearly snatched it late when Marcell Coetzee lost control
of the ball muscling it over the try-line -- a Bulls side much closer to
fullest staffing crashing by 12 points to arch-rivals the Stormers was a bitter
pill to swallow for the Loftus faithful.
In short, the Bulls were imposing for the first five minutes
or so ... but then the tide progressively turned even if a ghastly error by
Jurgen Visser proved the catalyst for the turnaround in scoreboard terms.
From there, a slightly makeshift-looking Stormers outfit
dared to believe, and their conviction only mushroomed – especially upfront
where they seized physical bragging rights with skipper Duane Vermeulen,
Michael Rhodes and others immense.
The Capetonians also appear to have unearthed a major
tighthead scrummaging asset in Vincent Koch, the former Pumas strongman who
also featured forcefully in open play – when Springbok Frans Malherbe is fully
fit imminently, he will not find that acquiring the No 3 jersey straight away
is a fait accompli.
Keep in mind that the Stormers began the match without both
Eben Etzebeth and Manny Carizza as lock options, and when Jean Kleyn was
sidelined after the first half and then gametime-shy Ruan Botha had to come off
as well, they were down to a makeshift third-choice pairing in Jurie van Vuuren
and the repositioned Rhodes ... and still they continued to hold sway
determinedly in the engine room.
Another big statement-maker was inside centre Damian de
Allende, who oozed urgency and authority from start to finish and mixed
powerful commitment in contact and via leg drive with some silky touches.
Expect a particularly big crowd, following this tenacious
showing, for the Stormers’ first Newlands match against the Blues, who tasted narrow
defeat to the Chiefs, on Saturday evening ...
fixtures (home teams first, all kick-offs SA time):
Friday: Chiefs v Brumbies, 08:35; Rebels v Waratahs, 10:40;
Bulls v Hurricanes, 19:10. Saturday: Highlanders v Crusaders, 08:35; Reds v
Force, 10:40; Stormers v Blues, 17:05; Sharks v Lions, 19:10. Bye: Cheetahs.*Follow
our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing