Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief write
Cape Town - So it is left to the Jaguares to dubiously maintain the "South African" challenge in Super Rugby 2019.
The Argentinean side had easily won the SA conference anyway, but this weekend's quarter-finals only underlined the appropriateness of their carrying the group flag into Saturday's semi-finals: Crusaders v Hurricanes and Jaguares v Brumbies.
Frankly, it seems the most apt line-up based on the season's fortunes, and it says so much about the violent thinning of depth in South African rugby - something likely only to be aggravated in 2020 - that none of the home-based franchises could crack this year’s last four.
While the Jaguares held off a huge Chiefs effort in Buenos Aires to bank semi-final status for the first time, both the Bulls and Sharks were eliminated at the first knockout hurdle, losing abroad to the 'Canes and Brumbies respectively.
It was an ignominious event: only the second time since 2003 that South Africa has not boasted a presence in at least the semis.
In that distant year, the Bulls ending sixth in what was then a round-robin (no conferences) Super 12, minus quarter-finals, was the best it got for the SA "charge".
The last occasion of South Africa being absent from the semis was in 2015, when the Stormers were thumped 39-19 by the Brumbies in a Newlands quarter-final and no other domestic outfit got as far as they did.
For all of the subsequent three seasons, the Lions represented the national cause with some distinction, going all the way to the showpiece each time, although they always ended as bridesmaids.
With their fading to ninth overall in ordinary season this year, that luxury disappeared.
One shaft of light on an otherwise unedifying Saturday was that the Bulls put up a particularly gallant effort in Wellington, before succumbing 35-28 in a tussle of pleasing quality.
Ensuring that the try outcome was 4-4 said everything about their competitiveness ... a little against the odds, considering that it was only a fortnight ago that they were still playing matches in New Zealand and jetlag shaped as a special concern as a result.
Their general enthusiasm, never-say-die spirit and the positivity of their play in recent weeks has been eye-opening, and their showing at the Cake Tin was no different: you would not have bet too heavily on running the Hurricanes so close when they trailed 24-7 after only 27 minutes.
Traditionally, that sort of margin is usually the cue for SA teams to wilt all-embracingly in knockout matches on NZ soil; instead it only galvanised these Bulls to make a royal go of it.
Most of the visitors' staple figures were right up for the scrap, but special mention should be made of right wing Cornal Hendricks, whose two tries served as the culmination of a steady rise in his performance curve this year.
He has decent strength and willpower to go with his natural predatory instincts and, after a lengthy period of his career where he was side-lined by complex health-related matters, his inspiring fightback could yet culminate in Springbok recall for the first time since his last Test appearance against the All Blacks in Johannesburg in 2015.
It seems a terrible shame that the Bulls will be absolutely decimated by high-profile departures now, requiring a patient rebuild with more callow troops.
As commentator and former Bok wing favourite Breyton Paulse noted on Twitter: "It's a real pity so many of these Bulls stars are leaving as they (are) finally starting to gel as a team."
The Sharks, unfortunately, could not match the Bulls' passion in bitingly cold Canberra, where the Brumbies eventually ran away from them for a - slightly deceptive, mind - 38-13 outcome.
That they have largely flat-lined during the sometimes controversial Robert du Preez coaching reign of the last three years was reflected in their old bogey coming back to the fore on Saturday: a very decent supply of possession and territory just not being accompanied by suitable activity in the try column.
Brawny centre Andre Esterhuizen crashing over in unsubtle fashion was their only success there, while the Brumbies ruthlessly exploited some tardy, ponderous defence from Sharks forwards at close quarters to punch far bigger holes of their own and dot down five tries.
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