The Southern Kings bounced back in impressive fashion, providing South Africa’s only victory in the weekend’s Vodacom SuperRugby action, as they pulled off a hard-fought 34-27 win over the Highlanders in Port Elizabeth.
The tenacious victory lifted the gloom somewhat after a weekend in which the Sharks, Cheetahs and Stormers all lost, giving the Bulls, who had a bye, a handy five-point lead in the South African Conference.
Under the inspiring leadership of Luke Watson, the Kings were clinical and composed under pressure, scoring after the half-time hooter to reclaim the lead and then dominating the third quarter to open up a commanding 34-17 lead. They then had to rely on heroic defence to keep out sustained pressure from a defiant Highlanders team that threw everything into attack.
Tries by centre Shaun Treeby and wing Hosea Gear forced the Kings to defend with all their might to claim their third victory of the season and climb to 13th in the overall standings.
While the way the Kings managed to rebound from their 72-10 mauling at the hands of the Waratahs last weekend was highly admirable, credit too must go to their supporters, who still turned up in droves, 18,500 of them, to back their team.
“A lot of credit must go to the crowd – we got absolutely pumped last week and to see this crowd here – it’s thanks to the supporters for turning up. We really appreciate the support.
“We were able to bounce back and showed a lot of character,” Watson, who scored two tries from rolling mauls, said after the game.
Outstanding loose forward Cornell du Preez and scrumhalf Shaun Venter then scored second-half tries to earn the Kings their second try-scoring bonus point of the season.
The Sharks and Stormers both lost in Australia, to the Reds and Waratahs respectively and now have a slim chance of making the playoffs, never mind tussling for the Conference title as they were expected to at the start of the campaign.
The Sharks once again made a dreadful start, lacking focus and any steel in defence, and the Reds, who showed superb vision and efficiency on attack, punished them ruthlessly, running up a 29-3 lead in 34 minutes as they scored four beautiful tries.
The Sharks were much better in the second half and pushed the Reds when they fought back to 29-17 with 15 minutes remaining, but Quade Cooper, who orchestrated the Queenslanders’ attack with customary panache, then settled the outcome when he kicked a penalty 72 minutes into the game.
The Stormers went down 21-15 to the Waratahs in Sydney and coach Allister Coetzee said he felt the “bounce of the ball” was just not going their way as they slumped to their second consecutive defeat and their sixth in 10 games.
“The bounce of the ball really does not favour us at this point in time, but one must give credit to the Waratahs. They kept their composure and they stuck it out to the end. It was a Test-match situation, it was a physical game, but they fronted up until the end,” he said.
But he perhaps gave away what the Stormers’ problem is at the moment – they are relying on things just happening for them – trusting that their brilliant defence will force mistakes from the opposition, rather than making opportunities themselves.
The Stormers made 155 tackles to the 77 of the Waratahs and that just proves that they made far too many errors, gifting too much possession to the home side.
Although they made a strong start to the second half and still led 15-11 going into the last five minutes, they were defending with their backs to the wall in the final quarter and it was Israel Folau and Berrick Barnes who eventually made the breakthrough for Folau to score his seventh try of the season.
The Cheetahs, meanwhile, lost 39-34 to the Hurricanes in Bloemfontein and were guilty of playing the wrong game, trying to beat the visitors at their own high-tempo, ball-in-hand approach.
The ascendancy of the Cheetahs in the tight phases demanded that they squeeze the Hurricanes and play the territory game, but instead the “old” Cheetahs reappeared.
The tactical kicking was poor, the attack was more a lateral shifting of the ball from side-to-side rather than anything incisive and direct, and the defence was below the high standards the Cheetahs have set recently.