Cape Town - The long weekend was one of missed opportunities for South Africa’s Super Rugby teams, and also one that underlined what the Kiwi sides do that the local ones don’t.
According to the supersport.com website, the two most promising South African challengers in the competition this year both wasted gilt edged opportunities to make a strong move on the log.
The Lions would be on top of the overall log now had they done what they should have been expected to do by beating the Reds in Brisbane. Conversely, the Bulls still have a game in hand on the South African log leaders and would have found themselves closing in on the Lions had they taken their scoring chances at Loftus.
Even the Stormers, who hit the winning trail after a three-match losing sequence by beating the Rebels on a wet Friday afternoon at Newlands, will feel they missed an opportunity. The battle for a top eight position is a tight one and they could have done with the try scoring bonus point that looked theirs for the taking when they had scored three tries to nil early in the second half.
Not for the first time this season the Stormers found themselves fading badly in the middle stages of the second half, something that may be down to concentration for there shouldn’t be any questioning of the Stormers’ conditioning.
But it was the two Gauteng sides, the Lions and the Bulls, that provided the most disappointment in terms of not delivering on expectation. To be fair to the Bulls, they didn’t do much wrong. In fact, they turned in a quite compelling performance against the Highlanders, who had to survive for long periods just on pure tenacity and their belief in a well organised defensive system that effectively won the game for them.
It is tempting to say that the statistics alone tell us that the Bulls should have won the game, but then it isn’t unusual this season to see the Highlanders get smashed when it comes to ball possession stats and still win the match. They are very good at playing and winning without the ball. Still, those stats are interesting - the Bulls enjoyed no less than 70 percent of the possession, and they scored to four tries to two. And still lost!
Referee Glen Jackson did make at least one questionable call that cost the Bulls crucial three points, but where the Bulls should feel they blew it was the little elementary errors that prevented them finishing off at critical stages of the game when they could possibly have closed the Highlanders out. That reference is in particular to the period just before halftime when, already in the lead, they were smashing away at the Highlanders line for a try that would have put them more than a score ahead.
That might have been a killer blow to the visitors, but instead they were able to go to the break feeling that they were still hanging in. The confidence boost enabled them to come out after halftime rejuvenated and they caught the Bulls napping by scoring 13 unanswered points in as many minutes to change the whole context of the game.
They grabbed virtually every scoring chance that came their way and that is one of the things that Kiwi teams tend to do that South African teams don’t. They also tend to somehow close out the close games and conquer the overseas challenge in a way that both South African and Australian teams fail to do.
The reference point for this argument should be the last two matches we have seen between South African and New Zealand teams. We have to go back a couple of weeks for that previous match, which was the Sharks doing everything but win their away match against the Hurricanes. Those who watched that game should agree with the view that it was probably the best Sharks performance in a couple of seasons and they really dominated the tournament’s form team only to somehow lose it right at the end.
Were the roles reversed, would a South African team that had been under the cosh for so long in the game been able to hang in and then win at the death like the Hurricanes did? We can ask a similar question about the Pretoria game - a South African side hanging in during an away fixture in New Zealand and then somehow winning despite the opposition’s overall dominance?
Both scenarios may be possible, but there is little recent evidence of it. What the good Kiwi teams are also unlikely to do these days (though the Crusaders used to make a habit of it) is to lose to a struggling team like the Reds. The Lions’ first half blow-out in Brisbane may come back to haunt them when the final log placings are decided, for they showed in the second half, and particularly the last half hour where they scored 22 unanswered points, that it was a game they should have won at a canter.
Perhaps the Lions knew that and it is what cost them. Super Rugby is more competitive this year than it has been for a while and it is often said by coaches that virtually any team can beat another if the favoured team is even as little as five percent off their game. The Lions were a little bit more than that off their game in Brisbane, and it is why they conceded 24 first half points without scoring any of their own.
Those who watched the game would probably agree that the Reds were significantly better than they would have been expected to be given some of their recent nondescript performances. Their physical defensive game knocked the Lions out of their stride early and their first half scrumming and mauling also produced an unexpected spoke for the Lions to contend with.
But it was also hard to escape the feeling that had the Lions been as switched on as they were against the Waratahs the previous week, they would have been able to meet the challenge posed by a home team that raised its game against one of the tournament front-runners. Being up and good enough to win consistently is a tough ask in an arduous and intense competition like Super Rugby but it is a challenge that most of the Kiwi teams (the Blues being the exception) are meeting.
The Lions are still second on the overall log but if you look at that log closely it will tell you a story of Kiwi dominance. Both the official front-runners the Crusaders and the Hurricanes have more log points than the Lions do, and they both have games in hand on the Johannesburg team. In fact the Hurricanes have two games in hand.
The Highlanders are three points further back from the Lions, but also have two games in hand, and even the Chiefs, fourth placed among the Kiwi teams currently, can claim to be at least on an equal footing with the Lions in the sense that they have a backlog of five points to make up but also have two games in hand.
The Highlanders visit the Shark Tank this week and the Chiefs visit Newlands in a fortnight so the Lions might find themselves hoping for a little help from their friends, but it is the Crusaders and Hurricanes who should be their biggest concern as they head to New Zealand for the most testing leg of their tour.
Read the story on SuperSport.com