Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – Eight
years apart … so lots of changes in the interim to playing styles and laws of
the game, not to mention a very different Super Rugby structure.
are also certain irresistible comparisons to be made between the current Lions
team - about to enter their third final in as many years against the
formidable Crusaders in Christchurch on Saturday - and the last consistently
successful South African side in the competition.
of course was the Bulls, courtesy of a glowing period between 2007 and 2010
where they won the title three times in four seasons, winning all three
showpieces they appeared in (against the Sharks in 2007, Chiefs in 2009 and their
golden era culminating against the Stormers in Soweto, 2010).
culmination, it is hardly a secret that the present Lions will be bidding
farewell to certain stalwart players after the 2018 competition ends at AMI
Stadium, suggesting a bit of a “last chance saloon” in their title quest as
next year onward may require a patient rebuild toward a really strong force
you are not quite comparing apples with apples, there is also no harm in
fantasizing about a meeting between the Lions XV chosen for this weekend’s
final and the Bulls XV who last brought the competition’s main silverware to a
South African cabinet in 2010.
Here’s my stab at it, examining the respective line-ups by positional groups on
the park …
Andries Coetzee, Ruan Combrinck and
Courtnall Skosan (Lions) v Zane Kirchner, Gerhard van den Heever and Francois
excitement-machine Aphiwe Dyantyi is debatably curtailed to Saturday’s bench, but
that’s not enough to quite convince me that the Bulls trio would match the
respective fullbacks are both “solid” more than game-breaking, but Coetzee has
shown pleasingly all-round effectiveness this year.
Heever was a decent poacher at his best, but never earned Springbok honours,
and versatile “Hougie”, of course, was playing in his second-best berth in the
2010 final (though he scored a fine try).
Super Rugby level, the Lions wings perhaps cut it better, on tournament
Lionel Mapoe and Harold Vorster
(Lions) v Jaco Pretorius and Wynand Olivier (Bulls)
again, but Mapoe’s corkscrewing runs and clever lines make him a lovely foil
for his now pretty regular midfield partner Vorster – the latter certainly on
the up at 24 and a cerebral decision-maker and creator for the Lions.
remember, tends to show up better for the Lions than he has in a dozen Test
back-liner Pretorius represented both the Lions and Bulls, and settled into a
trusty No 13 at Loftus although he retired at age 32 on medical advice after
Olivier, “Meisiekind” always had his critics (albeit usually outside Pretoria)
but the 38-cap Springbok is a durable rugby player still on Worcester Warriors’
books at 35.
Elton Jantjies and Ross Cronje
(Lions) v Morne Steyn and Fourie du Preez (Bulls)
aren’t always pretty and there will always be those favouring a more
metronomic, play-for-field-position pivot (read: Steyn) on such occasions over
an undoubtedly more naturally talented but sometimes dubious option-taking
fellow like Jantjies.
What has to
be agreed is that both, in very different ways, have been yeoman servants to
their Super Rugby franchises.
where the 2010 Bulls hold a huge ace, of course: the marvellously gifted, but
also smart game-managing Bok icon Du Preez.
Cronje is a
terrier for the Lions, but simply among several “scrummies” who have been used
with strictly limited success by South Africa since the international
retirement of Du Preez in late 2015.
Warren Whiteley, Cyle Brink and Kwagga
Smith (Lions) v Pierre Spies, Dewald Potgieter and Deon Stegmann (Bulls)
trio are a still-emerging factor as a combination; bear in mind that in last
year’s final against the very same Crusaders the red-and-whites still had
now-departed Ruan Ackermann and Jaco Kriel among their starting loosies.
against Spies would be an engrossing battle of mobile eighth-men, with Spies
having an edge in pure explosive power but sometimes going a bit AWOL in
work-rate at the coalface.
respective flankers are also closely matched, with Smith possibly more visible
in open, linking play than open-side rival Stegmann would be, but the latter a
more seasoned specialist at scavenging and slowing down opposition ball.
the increasingly dynamic Brink and “Slangkos” Potgieter (the two-start Bok is still
active in the English Premiership) have almost identical physical proportions for
their blindside duel.
None … dead heat!
Franco Mostert and Marvin Orie
(Lions) v Victor Matfield and Danie Rossouw (Bulls)
side of 2010 was missing global lineout supremo Matfield’s primary career ally
in the second row, Bakkies Botha: the hard man was serving a suspension when
the final came along.
simply meant a seamless switch for adaptable, admirable professional and
fellow-international Rossouw from No 7 to the four jersey; he was almost in
Botha’s league for mongrel even if less animatedly so.
The Lions of
2018 are about to lose Mostert to UK pastures; he has been at the very heart of
their tight five for several years and a wonderfully unyielding provider of
energy and graft.
brighter side for them, 25-year-old Orie has come on in leaps and bounds this
year, and can comfortably be pencilled in for either lock positions.
Matfield a vastly-decorated veteran of 127 Tests and Rossouw 63, you know where
the scale has to tilt on this one …
Jacques van Rooyen, Malcolm Marx and
Ruan Dreyer (Lions) v Gurthro Steenkamp, Gary Botha and Werner Kruger (Bulls)
think front row, the first thing that should come to mind, of course, is
in the last few weeks, the Lions have really upped their game at the set-piece,
and much of it is down to their trio at the core of the engine-room.
Of the four
props studied here, Steenkamp has the strongest CV (including 53 Bok caps),
although Kruger was more renowned for his general industry and Bulls loyalty than
as a destructive scrummager. (For all their command of other areas, the
three-time title-winning Bulls were never a notably feared scrum unit.)
was a feisty competitor and had a three-year tenure as a Bok, but naturally the
human wrecking-ball Marx – probably South Africa’s best rugby player in 2018 –
must be considered the premier man in the berth.
VERDICT: Well, I have the Lions shading three
departments, the Bulls two, and one of them split, which might suggest that the
Jo’burgers hold overall sway on paper.
there … you have to weigh that against the fact that the Bulls team contains a
sprinkling of true legends of the game (though Marx is getting there!) who
sport World Cup-winning medals, like Matfield, Rossouw and Du Preez.
have to give due credit to the highly apparent “BMT” of those Bulls in being
able to master all three finals they played in, whereas the Lions, let’s face
it, are nought from two in stabs at the pressure-cooker occasion, as things stand.
leaning just a fraction toward the Bulls nosing out this phantom scrap,
advantaged also by their glittering era having come shortly before the much more
sped-up, damaging exodus of home-based rugby players to lucrative foreign
if these gutsy, strong-spirited Lions achieve Mission Impossible against the
‘Saders in their own den, I may well be begging for a cheeky rethink by late
morning on Saturday …
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