The Bulls and Stormers reopened their roads to the SuperRugby playoffs at the weekend as their victories over the high-flying Cheetahs and Sharks respectively saw the South African Conference concertina in dramatic fashion.
The Bulls beat the Cheetahs 26-20 and joined the central franchise on 23 points and in seventh place overall, and the Stormers saw off the Sharks 22-15 and are now just six points behind the Conference leaders and three adrift of the Bulls and Cheetahs.
And, just to further emphasise how competitive the South African Conference is, the Southern Kings snatched a last-ditch 30-27 victory over the Rebels in Melbourne and are in 13th position overall and just five points off the Stormers.
The Kings ended their extraordinarily impressive maiden overseas tour with an amazing victory sealed by flyhalf Demetri Catrakilis’s drop goal after the final hooter. The Eastern Cape side only had about 35% possession through the match and, after an arduous four-week tour, looked a metre off the pace for most of the game.
But they showed amazing resolve, tenacity and composure to still win against the odds and they will be hoping to transport the same spirit to Port Elizabeth as they now return home.
The Rebels will be pondering what could have been as they led 27-17 early in the second half, but what really cost them was the number of handling errors they made, mostly due to passes being rushed.
The Kings scored three tries, two of them in the first 15 minutes, and one can only imagine what they could do with a decent share of possession!
The Sharks were convincingly outplayed by the Stormers in Cape Town, only scraping a scarcely-deserved bonus point after the final hooter thanks to Pat Lambie’s fifth penalty.
The Sharks had enough ball (52% of possession according to ruckingoodstats.com) but what happened to their possession was the key as they could not get across the advantage line thanks to the Stormers putting their bodies on the line and dominating the collisions in emphatic style. Three of their players went off for concussion tests during the first half to exemplify their tremendous attitude.
The Stormers also dominated the set-pieces, especially and most surprisingly the scrums, to further undermine the Sharks’ ability to get front-foot ball.
The home side, like all good teams, scored just before half-time to transfer their dominance on the field on to the scoreboard. Captain and inside centre Jean de Villiers showed lovely hands in the tackle to send outside centre Juan de Jongh powering over for the only try of the match, taking the Stormers’ lead to 16-3.
The Sharks failed to make much of an impression against a Stormers defence that was led by the indefatigable Siya Kolisi, with Deon Fourie, Michael Rhodes and Andries Bekker not far behind.
The Sharks have now failed to score a try in four of their seven matches this season and the pedestrian nature of their attack, and the failure of anyone to really straighten the line, meant they were unlikely to trouble what has been the best defence in the competition in recent years.
The Stormers also won the territorial battle thanks to the splendid boot of fullback Joe Pietersen, who was also faultless when kicking at the poles, while Gary van Aswegen gave an assured display in the troublesome flyhalf position.
For the Sharks, too many of the senior players were not at the top of their games: Jannie du Plessis struggled in the scrums, Lambie was mediocre in terms of running the backs and Francois Steyn was disappointing at fullback, the Springbok wasting an overlap in the dying stages of the first half.
The Blue Bulls Rugby Union held a procession of former players at Loftus Versfeld to mark the union’s 75th anniversary and the old stars of Northern Transvaal rugby would have been delighted by the tremendous passion and commitment their side showed, especially in defence.
The Bulls were coming off three straight defeats overseas, but, back at home, the old intensity and confrontational fire was back as they held off a Cheetahs side that provided much to a game that was a wonderful spectacle.
The defences of both teams were excellent and it took the individual brilliance of scrumhalf Jano Vermaak to break the deadlock shortly after half-time.
The former Lions halfback sniped through the Cheetahs defence and the tackle of flank Lappies Labuschagne, dashing over from the 22-metre line in the 43rd minute.
The Bulls lineout was a clinical tower of strength throughout the game and, soon after Vermaak’s try, the Cheetahs found themselves under pressure on their own throw, trying to run the ball behind the advantage line and only managing to infringe at the ruck and give Morné Steyn a penalty to stretch the Bulls’ lead to 16-9.
With Victor Matfield now part of the Bulls’ coaching team, it’s no surprise their lineout is a work of such precision and Steyn was provided with another penalty in the 55th minute when the Cheetahs were again under pressure at the set-piece and Philip van der Walt tackled Pierre Spies off the ball.
But the Bulls also seemed to have plenty of information on the Cheetahs’ preferred exit strategies from their own half and their homework paid off in the 76th minute as Jan Serfontein was quickly up on Adriaan Strauss in midfield, the hooker dropping the ball under pressure, and, from the turnover, replacement hooker Callie Visagie was able to force his way over for the match-winning try.
Serfontein, despite being just 19 years old, was an immense presence at inside centre. Nothing went through his channel and he was also a highly effective ball-carrier. The 2012 IRB Junior Player of the Year is also a wonderful attacking player, with top-class skills, and it is hoped there will be a chance for him to display these other talents as well.
But Serfontein handled the pressures of a crucial South African derby, an in-form opposite number in Robert Ebersohn, and an expansive Cheetahs side that loves to stretch defences like a seasoned pro.
It is always marvellous to see youth being given its head and the Bulls should trust their structures as they look to continue their challenge for a playoff berth.