It was all about sticking to game plans as the Brumbies upset the Bulls at Loftus Versfeld on Saturday night, snatching a 26-23 victory at the death in their Vodacom SuperRugby semi-final in Pretoria.
With just a minute remaining, the Bulls looked about to win despite turning down three shots at goal in the preceding minutes as they led 23-19, but the Brumbies then scored a dramatic try as Bulls wing Bjorn Basson rushed up far too early on defence, leaving a yawning gap for flyhalf Matt Toomua to slide through and then pass inside for centre Tevita Kuridrani to break the home side’s hearts.
Much more fuss has been made over Bulls captain Dewald Potgieter’s decision to turn down shots at goal for three kickable penalties in the 67th, 69th and 72ndminutes than over Basson’s awful defensive lapse, but the loose forward fronted up for his options after the game.
Potgieter did eventually tell Morne Steyn to aim for goal after a massive scrum by the Bulls had earned them another penalty in the 76th minute, the flyhalf increasing their lead to 23-19, but the Bulls failed to successfully exit their own territory from the kick-off, allowing the Brumbies to attack within their 22.
“My feeling was that we hadn’t exited well the whole evening, we struggled to get out of our own half, so I wanted to keep the Brumbies down there. We did that for 10 minutes and my only regret is that I went for poles in the last five minutes. I should have backed my earlier decisions and kept them down there.
“I chatted to Morne Steyn every time we got a penalty and he had the same mindset as me, to keep them down there. The Brumbies aren’t the sort of team you expect to score from their own territory and even if there was a turnover, we were confident of keeping them there. I also felt that we were getting the upper hand through our forwards and that altitude was also playing a role,” Potgieter said.
There’s nothing wrong with the thinking behind Potgieter’s decisions, except that it meant a departure from the Bulls’ game plan all season. They have readily admitted that their strategy is to play for penalties and they have the most accurate goal-kicker of the competition in Steyn. Coach Frans Ludeke confirmed that building a bigger lead on the scoreboard had been the tactic he would have preferred.
“I spoke to Dewald afterwards about what happened and he had a totally different view to me. He felt like they should keep the Brumbies in their own territory, because he wanted to keep the pressure on them. To my mind, we should have been building a cushion on the scoreboard, but that’s rugby and I back him still as a brilliant leader,” Ludeke said.
The leadership skills of Potgieter are not in doubt – he led by example in a flat first half for the Bulls as well – and the courage and transparency he showed in being willing to discuss his decisions was in stark contrast to many other captains and teams. The Sharks left Loftus Versfeld a couple of weeks ago without even attending the press conference after suffering a one-point defeat.
Apart from deviating from the trusted game plan, the only other real criticism one can make of Potgieter’s strategy was that he may have been guilty of looking too far ahead, and even backwards to previous games, and not just focusing on winning the semi-final.
“I would back the same call again. When we lost against the Chiefs we were maybe too conservative. It was not just about closing out this game, but also how we wanted to walk into the next game. You need a total game to go all the way, the right attacking mindset brings reward,” Potgieter said in further revealing his thinking.
The Brumbies, in contrast, stuck to their game plan and executed with precision. From the opening kick-off to Akona Ndungane, which was chased hard and forced the wing into touch, giving the visitors a lineout from which they attacked through several phases and then won a penalty, it was clear they were playing to a plan and the plan was followed right until the 80th minute.
The shrewd hand of coach Jake White was very apparent as the Brumbies qualified for their first SuperRugby final since 2004.
“That opening was part of a specific plan and that was the way we wanted to start. We knew how nervous we were playing in front of our home crowd last week, plus the Bulls didn’t play last week, so we wanted a good start.
“It’s one of the greatest Brumbies win ever, we were down and out after 75 minutes but became the first team to win at Loftus this season. It’s a massive achievement,” White said.
The former Springbok coach, who never enjoyed the best of relationships with the Loftus Versfeld hierarchy, was also critical of Potgieter’s decision to spurn shots at goal in the last 10 minutes.
“We grew a leg when they didn’t go for poles, it helped us because it left the door open. If I had a new hooker on the field and the best goal-kicker in the competition, I’d be telling Stephen Larkham [Brumbies assistant coach] to get the kicking tee on as quickly as possible!”
While the last 10 minutes will remain fresh in most people’s memories, the truth is that the Bulls also didn’t show nearly enough intensity in the first half to stamp their dominance and make use of home-ground advantage.
“We had a very complacent first 15/20 minutes,” Potgieter admitted.
The dominance of the Brumbies in the scrums and at the breakdowns, thanks mainly to the brilliance of George Smith and the occasional leniency of referee Craig Joubert, was also obvious and the set-piece woes of the Bulls are something that must focus the minds of the management as they review the campaign.
“The Brumbies applied pressure through the set-piece and put points on the board through that. We need a solid set-piece, but it was under pressure,” Ludeke admitted.
The character of the Bulls was shown, however, by the way they fought back in the second half, gaining more parity in the scrums, pressurising the lineout and forcing penalties.
Unfortunately, those infringements by the Brumbies were neither punished nor taken advantage of.
The Brumbies will now travel to Hamilton to take on the defending champion Chiefs, who established themselves as the pre-eminent force in New Zealand rugby by beating the Crusaders 20-19 in their epic semi-final.
The Chiefs were under the cosh, the Crusaders controlling the set-pieces and the pace of the game, until the 53rdminute when the Waikato team were inspired by wing Lelia Masaga.
The Chiefs, having absorbed tremendous pressure from the Crusaders in the opening minutes of the second half, were hard on attack and Masaga received a long pass by scrumhalf Tawera Kerr-Barlow. By running straight back in the direction of the pass, Masaga surprised the Crusaders defence and, once he had built up some momentum, the 26-year-old had the pace and power to plough through the heavy traffic, going through four tackles to score.
The Chiefs had the lead for the first time (13-9) and the Crusaders were then shut out by some brilliant defence. Crotty was denied a try by a last-ditch Aaron Cruden tackle and, playing behind the advantage line thanks to crunching hits by the likes of Ben Afeaki and Tanerau Latimer, the Crusaders then conceded an intercept try. Crotty’s long pass, with his back to the Chiefs, was claimed by Cruden, who sprinted clear for the try and a 20-9 lead.
The Crusaders struck back with a brilliant individual try by Israel Dagg and a conversion and penalty by Dan Carter, but the Chiefs hung in for a brilliant victory against a team that was meant to be peaking at the right time.
Having enjoyed a lot of attacking ball in the first half, but wasting it through turnovers and set-piece failures, the Chiefs resorted to the safety of a simpler, more direct approach in the second half. The Crusaders, meanwhile, were forced to go wide too early by the aggressive defence and Carter trying an unlikely drop goal while he was on the run in the final minute epitomised how they had been shaken off their game.
“I just anticipated it and luckily he threw it for me,” Cruden said of his intercept try with some understatement. For connoisseurs of the game, watching Cruden and Carter display their magic was an absolute treat and it seems fair to say the All Blacks boast the two best flyhalves in world rugby.
While those two produced their best under pressure, there was arguably a match with even higher stakes played in Port Elizabeth, where the Southern Kings hosted the Lions in the first leg of their promotion/relegation series.
The Lions called on all their composure and an impressive display by their young flyhalf, Elton Jantjies, to beat the Kings 26-19.
Playing on their home ground, the Kings perhaps felt the weight of desperate expectation on their shoulders as their passionate home crowd willed them on to victory and a better chance of survival in SuperRugby.
Sadly, the Kings did not show as much composure under pressure as the Lions and four moments of ill-discipline in the first half allowed the on-target Jantjies to give the visitors a 12-6 lead by the half-hour.
Demetri Catrakilis then landed a cross-kick on the proverbial ticky for wing Marcello Sampson to dot down the Kings’ first try, but he made two important mistakes before half-time and then went off injured before the hour mark in a major blow for the Eastern Cape team, both in terms of the match and their prospects of overturning the deficit next weekend.
He firstly struck the post with a 37th-minute penalty after the Lions players had been in front of a chip by replacement scrumhalf Ross Cronje, and then Catrakilis threw the pass that was intercepted by impressive outside centre Stokkies Hanekom for a 39th-minute try that must have felt like a real kick in the shins for the Kings as it gave the visitors a five-point lead at the break.
Hanekom – remember his name, people! – also scored the Lions’ second try after bursting through the line on the angle. The pass from Jantjies looked slightly forward and has drawn the ire of Kings supporters, but judging on the decisions made previously in SuperRugby this year, the TMO may well have ruled it was flat anyway.
The Kings were the victims, however, of losing out on many 50/50 decisions by referee Jaco Peyper, the Lions attacking the breakdowns with particular vigour, with Derick Minnie a hugely disruptive presence.
The Lions were good value for their win, however.
The pace and intensity of SuperRugby was made clear to them from the opening seconds when tighthead prop Kevin Buys, responsible for several big hits against his former team, crashed into Minnie, knocking the ball loose and leading to the first points of the match via a Catrakilis penalty. But the Lions adapted immediately and much credit must go to the new coach, Johan Ackermann, and his assistants for ensuring the Lions were ready for the battle without the same level of competition as the Kings have enjoyed.
The Kings did at least claim the bonus point for losing by seven, but the Lions are certainly the favourites for the decider next weekend at Ellis Park.