Cape Town - Super Rugby 2018 continues to cop weekly criticism, with crowd attendances and questionable refereeing still the primary grievances.
This past weekend was no different with the Stormers, Sharks - and even the victorious Bulls - all hitting out at certain decisions after their respective matches.
News that the Stormers will lay an official complaint against New Zealand referee Mike Fraser following their 15-9 loss to the Chiefs in Cape Town on Saturday is hardly surprising. In fixtures like that, a neutral referee always makes the most sense.
Officiating and crowd sizes aside, though, there has been solid evidence over the past two weekends that all is not lost in this competition from a South African perspective.
For two Saturdays in a row, we have been treated to two cracking South African derbies. Both involved the Bulls.
In Cape Town, John Mitchell’s men fell short against the Stormers, going down 29-17 in the end. It may not have been the high-scoring try-fest we all seem to crave these days, but the intensity that existed throughout the contest was a timely reminder that South African derbies still have the potential to be full of spice.
The sizeable Newlands crowd - there were over 30 000 in attendance - watched on as two of the country’s rugby powerhouses rolled back the years and exchanged blows like the title-challenging sides they used to be.
It was a captivating clash, start to finish.
Then, on Saturday, there was a humdinger in Pretoria where the Bulls and Sharks dished up a classic.
There were nine tries scored on the day - six belonging to the hosts as they emerged 39-33 winners.
The Loftus crowd is still nowhere near the size it should be, but the Bulls are clearly on the right path under Mitchell. It is not a coincidence that they have been involved in two of the best local derbies so far this season.
Results haven’t always gone their way, but the Bulls are clearly buying into a Mitchell philosophy that has struck the perfect balance between being both direct and expansive.
The change was desperately needed at Loftus, and for all of his good intentions previous coach Nollis Marais just never seemed to be in control of the ship. Under Marais, the Bulls wanted to be exciting but had no idea how. Under Mitchell, they have been given the tools.
Ultimately, a strong Bulls side benefits everybody in South African rugby.
Historically, when the Bulls have delivered, so too have the Springboks. Conversely, when the Bulls struggled over the past two years, so did the Boks.
There is an unmissable feeling of pride that has been brought back to the Bulls jersey this year, and you can see it in a number of players who are playing like they have been given a kick up the backside.
Jesse Kriel, all of a sudden, looks like the world class No 13 he is supposed to be. Lood de Jager is back to his best, RG Snyman is knocking on the Springbok door, Adriaan Strauss is playing with renewed vigour, Handre Pollard is starting to show his pedigree and Warrick Gelant is as exciting as anyone in South African rugby currently.
The form of all of those players is what one should expect from a Bulls side … always.
Pretoria, and 'Fortress Loftus', should always serve as a South African rugby stronghold and given what we have seen so far in 2018, there are a number of Bulls who could force their way into Rassie Erasmus’ plans for the June Tests.
There is still a fair way to go, but the Bulls are in the thick of the Super Rugby playoff race.
If they do progress to the knockouts, it will be their first venture into the business end of the tournament since 2013.
Hopefully, by then, the locals in Pretoria will have woken up to the fact that there is something special brewing at Loftus this year.
Super Rugby may have its own struggles, but the Bulls are looking more and more like a rare and much-needed success story.
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