South Africa’s Vodacom SuperRugby Conference title still looks set to return to Tshwane as the Bulls won their fifth successive game to keep ahead of the Cheetahs, who claimed an impressive victory over the Reds. The Sharks, meanwhile, silenced allegations of cultural divisions within their team by sealing a spirited win over the Western Force in Perth.
While there has rightly been a storm of protest over a diabolical penalty try decision against the Stormers by the TMO, the less said about the team’s actual performance in their defeat to the Rebels in Melbourne, the better.
The Bulls weren’t anywhere near their best on attack against the Highlanders at Loftus Versfeld, but where they impressed was in their suffocating defence, their ferocity at the breakdown and their ability to capitalise on opposition mistakes.
The margin of victory – 35-18 – was comfortable enough, but the Bulls struggled for much of the second half to get any continuity with ball in hand, and the bonus-point try only came in the 78th minute courtesy of some individual brilliance from replacement scrumhalf Jano Vermaak, who capitalised on the Highlanders’ defence worrying about substitute wing Bjorn Basson lurking out wide on the blindside.
And it was a crucial bonus point too as it lifted the Bulls into second on the overall log, above the Brumbies, from where they would qualify for a home semi-final if they remain in that position.
The Bulls’ first try came in just the third minute as they turned over possession from the kick-off and then bashed away at the Highlanders for 13 phases and created the overlap on the left. Francois Hougaard’s terrible pass – the returning scrumhalf’s service was scrappy in general – didn’t matter as outside centre JJ Engelbrecht gathered the ball off the ground and went over for the opening points.
The reliable boot of Morne Steyn added the next 11 points through the conversion and three penalties before what Bulls coach Frans Ludeke afterwards admitted was “the turning point of the game” came just two minutes before half-time.
The Highlanders, trailing 6-16, were pushing hard on the Bulls’ tryline but excellent defence saw the ball turned over. Flank Dewald Potgieter pounced and sparked a counter-attack, before feeding Engelbrecht, whose pass under pressure to wing Akona Ndungane, who then ran 80 metres to score, was referred to the TMO.
The television pictures seemed clear enough, but the TMO ruled there was insufficient evidence that Engelbrecht’s pass had been forward, and the try was allowed.
Pierre Spies, the Bulls captain celebrating his 100th SuperRugby game, then charged over for a try six minutes into the second half to decide the contest, but the vagaries of the referral system were once again in the spotlight after the controversy in Melbourne the previous day.
Matt Goddard’s decision to award a penalty try against the Stormers – who were leading 21-20 at the time – was based on hooker Martin Bezuidenhout pulling replacement scrumhalf Nick Phipps back as he chased his grubber over the tryline – but the Australian ignored Scott Higginbotham’s clear knock-on moments before and the fact that Bryan Habana, probably the fastest player on the field, was also racing towards the ball.
While it was a shocking call, the Stormers once again really had only themselves to blame for the defeat. In the minutes leading up to the Rebels’ comeback, they had turned down three kicks at goal to set the lineout and get their rolling maul going. The Rebels defended superbly close to their line, but poor decision-making by the Stormers saw them turn over the ball. They then contrived to lose their own lineout throw and conceded a soft penalty for offsides, which allowed the Rebels back on to attack.
The decision by coach Allister Coetzee to substitute halfbacks Elton Jantjies and Louis Schreuder also needs to be questioned as the Stormers, playing off flyhalf more than in previous weeks, had scored three tries with them on the field.
But while the Stormers improved on attack, their defence was softer than it has been practically all season and the Rebels were able to make ground far too easily with ball in hand. The physicality of Duane Vermeulen and Rynhardt Elstadt was obviously missed, but the Stormers are going to have to show more adaptability in tough circumstances if they are ever to win the SuperRugby trophy.
Captain Jean de Villiers also continues to elect to kick for touch and go for tries rather than build the scoreboard – and the pressure that creates try-scoring opportunities – as the Bulls do so successfully.
With the Waratahs scoring a stunning victory over the log-leading Brumbies a few hours earlier, the Reds had the opportunity to take first place when they took on the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein.
But a sloppy performance by the 2011 champions, and a clinical performance by the Cheetahs, who were magnificent in defence and ruthless on attack, saw the Reds slide to a 27-13 defeat.
Never mind his refusal to toe the line on matters of team discipline, Quade Cooper provided plenty of justification for Wallabies coach Robbie Deans’ decision not to include him in his initial Australia squad to face the British and Irish Lions with an error-strewn performance.
But scrumhalf Will Genia also made several mistakes in a similarly unfocused display and it is difficult to know whether it was the 40 hours of disrupted travel the Reds had to endure to get to South Africa or the Wallaby squad announcement that distracted them so much.
The Cheetahs deserve immense credit though because of their ability to get themselves out of trouble despite teetering on the ledge of the precipice on numerous occasions.
The Reds enjoyed 64% of possession and the Cheetahs had to make 125 tackles compared to the 57 of the visitors. But it was that uncompromising defence, right up in the faces of a team that likes to throw the ball around flat on the gain-line, that also led to 13 turnovers.
And the Cheetahs were clinical in turning their few opportunities, especially from turnover ball, into points.
Scrumhalf Piet van Zyl scored two brilliant individual tries in a superb performance that suggested the 23-year-old could be the answer to the worrying lack of depth for the Springboks’ number nine jersey.
The Cheetahs’ loose trio, especially Lappies Labuschagne and Philip van der Walt, were immense, and new flyhalf Elgar Watts was practically unerring with the boot, keeping the scoreboard ticking over with five penalties and a conversion.
The selection of Watts had been trumpeted by the Cheetahs’ management in the build-up to the game as an indication that they wanted to use their backline to run at the Reds, but that turned out to be a red herring.
Instead of trying to match the Reds at their own game, the Cheetahs chose to attack from the set-pieces and use the powerful ball-carrying abilities of their forwards.
The Sharks, having lost their previous five matches, desperately needed someone to spark them against the Force, even though laughable newspaper reports during the week that skipper Keegan Daniel was “anti-Afrikaners” undoubtedly added fire to their bellies.
It was loose forward Marcell Coetzee, who had been quiet in previous weeks, who provided the inspiration as he defended like a Trojan, leading the Sharks’ stats with 21 tackles, winning turnovers and carrying the ball strongly.
He made the tackle and then claimed the turnover as the Force inexplicably took a short tap on their own 22 in the 64th minute, with the scores level at 13-13, that led to Riaan Viljoen’s brilliant match-winning try.
Fullback Viljoen broke the line and then he handed off one would-be tackler before breaking through another to score the Sharks’ second try.
Fellow flank Willem Alberts also enjoyed a powerful game as he returned to the starting line-up. He also no doubt made Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer smile at the thought of having one of his favourite weapons available for the internationals next month.
Lock Franco van der Merwe was also impressive as he once again dominated the lineouts and he contributed significantly at the collisions and breakdowns.
Daniel expressed his relief after the game that the Sharks had managed to end their torrid tour on a winning note.
“We were under a lot of pressure this week,” he said. “That was guts and effort. We knew we have been strong in the second half of games and that’s what happened tonight.”
What will be a concern for coach John Plumtree is that the Sharks once again made a slow start, conceding 65% of first-half possession to the Force and giving away much of their own ball. They were fortunate to just be trailing by three points at the break, which was a credit to their defence.
That same defence came to the fore in the closing minutes with the Force pushing hard at their line. Hooker Heath Tessmann and replacement scrumhalf Brett Sheehan both had a go at diving over, but the TMO correctly ruled that Tessmann’s initial attempt had led to a little knock-on at the base of the ruck.
The Sharks’ set-pieces were also a key factor in the triumph and the pack remains a formidable outfit despite the raft of injuries.