Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - Calling it a Springbok trial was always
stretching things just a little.
For one thing, the reasonably important absence of Lions or
Sharks players lessened the legitimacy of the label a great deal.
But there were enough intriguing match-ups in Saturday
evening’s Bulls v Stormers Super Rugby derby to be able to understand any
Bok-related hype ... especially as new national head coach Rassie Erasmus and
most of his key lieutenants were reportedly there to witness it.
READ: Bulls lash ill-disciplined Stormers
If anything, the Bulls’ thoroughly deserved 33-23 triumph
would probably only have deepened, rather than eased, any uncertainty in the
mind of Erasmus and company over his staffing plans for the fast-looming home
series against England during June.
The Stormers, after all, lying higher on the SA conference
and starting the clash with a greater crop of frontline internationals than
their Pretoria hosts, might have been expected by a sizeable chunk of neutrals
to dominate proceedings against foes who had just got back from a fatiguing,
winless Australasian leg - and also had some last-ditch reshuffling to do to
their XV because of fitness issues.
Robbie Fleck’s charges, remember, had also been on a
two-game winning streak ahead of the latest assignment.
But you quickly picked up a sense that the Bulls, before a
decent Easter crowd, somehow wanted this one more, whilst they also outsmarted
the Capetonians tactically as a pivotal element to their success; their line
speed on defence was a pleasing feature throughout.
The classic example of the superior “switched-on” vibe in the
Bulls ranks was the first scrum (considering the justifiable feeling among
pundits in the lead-up that this set-piece might well be bossed in a
significant way by the visiting eight).
If highly-touted Bok props Steven Kitshoff and Wilco Louw
thought they would quickly assert themselves against direct opponents Trevor
Nyakane and Pierre Schoeman respectively, they were in for an immediate, rude awakening,
as the Stormers pack back-pedalled uncomfortably ... to much, energising whooping
from the Bulls’ engine room.
The men from the south gradually recovered to some extent
from that indignity, but were also never really able to impose themselves to a
meaningful extent in a department many thought would be a cornerstone to a
drive for an away victory.
Similarly, the Stormers were broadly outfoxed in the
loose-forward contest by a pretty untrumpeted Bulls combo who showed very
limited respect to a visiting trio featuring two gnarly Boks in Siya Kolisi and
Nizaam Carr, who were rendered fairly anonymous for extended periods.
And what of the much-publicised scrap at flyhalf between
Test incumbent Handre Pollard and teenage wonder Damian Willemse?
Well, Willemse certainly wasn’t a disgrace for the Stormers,
producing some special touches at times, but as a game-dictator he was
indisputably outdone on the day by the canny Pollard.
The rookie struggled a bit with both his out-of-hand and
place-kicking, whereas his more seasoned opposite number was considerably more
Ace SuperSport pundit Nick Mallett summed things up quite
fittingly afterwards: “Damian is a big, big talent, let’s not forget that, but
tonight we saw (in dominating terms) a guy who has been there and done that
versus one who wants to do it.”
Not helping the Stormers’ cause at all were respective
yellow cards for two other experienced Bok players in midfielder Damian de
Allende and second-rower Pieter-Steph du Toit.
Of course he is right out of the Test picture nowadays - having retired from internationals more than a year ago - but Saturday also
turned into a fairy-tale, SA-record 149th Super Rugby outing for
veteran Bulls hooker Adriaan Strauss, who notched a maiden hat-trick of tries and
looked as motivated to get the job done in the derby as any team-mate around
One of those dot-downs was an easy cash-in on a terrible
lineout overthrow by direct rival Ramone Samuels: that part of the job remains
a glaring Achilles heel for the Stormers No 2, although he did busy himself
effectively as a ball-pincher on the deck, in fairness.
The result, from a game that was a typical all-SA affair -
with passions sadly eclipsing gumption, skill and continuity for the most part -
did relatively little to suggest there will be a couple of credible
title-chasers from the domestic conference.
That is because the Stormers, just when it seemed they were
getting a bit of a head of steam, have now slipped to four defeats from seven
fixtures following this rag-tag showing, whilst the Bulls still have plenty of
catching up to do themselves with two victories from six matches.
fixtures (home teams first, all kick-offs SA time):
Friday: Hurricanes v Sharks, 09:35. Saturday: Sunwolves v
Waratahs, 07:15; Chiefs v Blues, 09:35; Brumbies v Reds, 11:45; Lions v
Stormers, 17:15; Jaguares v Crusaders, 23:40. Byes: Bulls, Highlanders, Rebels.*Follow our chief
writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing