The Standard Bank Proteas need to continue improving if the sense of pride and joy that surrounds the team today is to remain in the long-term, coach Russell Domingo said upon the squad’s victorious return from their Test series triumph in Australia.
The Bulls have to beat the Rebels in Melbourne this morning to remain in SuperRugby contention and they are also playing for the future of their coach, Frans Ludeke.
This is not only the Bulls’ last match on tour but it is also the final game before Ludeke faces the board back at Loftus Versfeld on Friday, the day before they host the Cheetahs. They will be out of contention for the playoffs by then, however, if they don’t beat the Rebels and end their 10-match losing run overseas. There are already noises emanating from Pretoria that Ludeke will be relieved of his duties unless his team stages a dramatic turnaround.
To do that, they are going to have to show much greater intensity in the collisions than they did in the lame display against the Brumbies last weekend.
“The Rebels are obviously a much-improved side, they beat the Crusaders away and the Chiefs. They have the most ball-carries and the best retention percentage, so they keep the ball and hold on to it. They have a strong set-piece, most of their tries come from the lineout, and they wear you down,” Ludeke said.
“We will have to squeeze turnovers, they concede a lot and we will have to make sure we force them with a good defensive line and not wasting people at the breakdown. The Rebels aren’t scared to take risks, they throw the ball around, so if we work hard in defence then we will get opportunities.”
The Rebels were poor in losing to a mediocre Sharks side last weekend in Durban and are now out of playoffs contention, but they were still talking a good game this week.
“I feel like there’s a lot riding on these last two weeks. Just because there’s only two games left, it doesn’t mean we can’t send a message about next year.
“We didn’t take our opportunities against the Sharks, for whatever reason, and this time we need to play smarter. We’re pretty confident of what we’re going to get presented with this week, so it’s another huge opportunity for us.
“The Bulls forward pack will be awesome; they’re so big so we’re really going to have to shut them down with two-man tackles. If we can shut them down that will take away a lot of their forward momentum,” lock Luke Jones said.
The organisers of the Varsity Cup rugby tournament look set to learn the hard way that, in order for followers to remain invested in their product, the integrity of a sporting competition is most important.
By “integrity” I mean that the way the tournament is run and governed has to be seen to be giving all the competing teams an equal chance, a level playing field. Like English Premier League football, where every team plays the others home and away and the top team on the log wins the trophy.
For students, the Varsity Cup has been a breath of fresh air, a place to hang out with your bros and, no doubt, check out the ladies, all accompanied by typically student quantities of alcohol. But for the organisers, the real target has always been television, where the big money is, hence their decision to play matches this year off-campus.
And for television viewers, a level playing field will be more important than any of the many gimmicks they have come up with in terms of rule-changes. Perhaps Varsity Sports should have paid more attention to simplifying their complex eligibility rules than to coming up with weird and wonderful law variations that, frankly, make me consider the Varsity Cup to be the IPL of South African sport.
The allegation that Pukke had an ineligible player on the park while they beat Maties in the showpiece final is obviously a PR disaster. But it was made even worse because Varsity Sports had already made their bed by earlier slapping an extremely harsh 12-point penalty on the UKZN Impi for the same technical offence – both teams having had their players cleared by the tournament-appointed auditors, KPMG – ensuring that the KwaZulu-Natalians, who have dominated the Varsity Shield for two seasons, no longer had any chance of promotion.
The harsh decision, which their advocate presciently warned was creating a dangerous precedent, caused further disgruntlement for a side that had been forced to play some of their home matches at the ground of their biggest rivals, Wits, albeit because of the unrest that was sweeping university campuses.
UKZN were already feeling like they weren’t really wanted in the big league and there were even allegations from elsewhere in the country that Varsity Sports wanted to ensure foundation members UCT and Wits were in the Varsity Cup, partly because of the cost of playing games in the relatively-isolated province of KwaZulu-Natal.
Whether they remain consistent and strip Pukke of the title or reinstate UKZN, the Varsity Cup management are in a quandary, their failure to run the tournament in a professional manner having been exposed.
But they are not the only ones.
Sanzaar just don’t seem able to settle on a SuperRugby format that will work, with the current competition clearly lopsided in favour of some teams. Some sides don’t have to play the top teams from last year, while some franchises, like the Bulls and Stormers, don’t even have to tour New Zealand, while the Lions and Sharks do.
A competition that was confusing before has become even more complex and unfair, alienating supporters.
Social media was alive this week with another example of an organisation that is playing fast and loose with the integrity of the game – Cricket Australia.
The first day/night Test against New Zealand last November was not an overwhelming success, whatever CA have been saying in the many propaganda press releases they have sent out this week. It was all over in three days, which rather nullifies the commercial advantages because of two days of lost television coverage, and the views of the players involved was hardly one of unbridled enthusiasm.
The problems with seeing the pink ball once it becomes worn meant the Adelaide Oval pitch was a grassy seamer, and 224 was the highest innings total.
AB de Villiers was quite right to point out that the prior experience Australia have of playing in those conditions was a massive advantage, especially in the potentially decisive final Test of the series, at that level where the margins are so small. Perhaps they’re trying to pull a fast one because South Africa was triumphant in the last two Test tours Down Under?
It would be akin to the Springboks being asked to play a Test with a new scrum rule they had never played under.
The concept of day/night Test cricket is a good one, but I have a feeling it will only work if the white clothes go and a white ball is used.
Despite the mounting pressure on them, the Bulls will remain faithful to the same plan they used in the opening two weeks of Vodacom SuperRugby when they take on the Sharks in a crunch local derby at Loftus Versfeld on Saturday.
“We believe what we are doing is right, we’re just not executing it well enough. Everybody can see where our mistakes are and we know that we haven’t performed as well as we can, not up to our standards,” captain Pierre Spies said.
The Bulls were just centimetres away – Grant Hattingh’s ‘try’ being disallowed by the TMO – from actually beating the Hurricanes last weekend and Spies believes this shows how close they are to turning their season around after opening with two defeats.
“It’s a game of inches and we need to keep perspective – if Grant had cut his fingernails the night before then we would have won and we wouldn’t be having this discussion, wouldn’t be looking at everything we’ve done wrong.
“We just have to graft it out, gel together and really stand up as a unit. We need to start converting pressure into points,” Spies said.
But it’s not just the Bulls’ results that have been disappointing: Against both the Stormers and the Hurricanes there was just no spark, no intensity, and a similar flatness against the Sharks will cost them dearly.
The Sharks responded to their opening defeat against the Cheetahs with a highly-impressive bonus-point win in sodden conditions over the Lions, a commanding performance in the scrum laying the platform.
The scrum has been a key area of concern for the Bulls so far this season, and if they don’t sort it out today, then it will surely also cost them dearly.
If the Sharks get front-foot ball then they can either attack through the middle with mobile, powerful ball-carrying forwards like Pieter-Steph du Toit, Marcell Coetzee and Ryan Kankowski, or they have finishing quality out wide in a backline that was superbly marshalled by Pat Lambie and Cobus Reinach against the Lions, and features pace on the wings in Lwazi Mvovo and Odwa Ndungane.
The return of Kankowski will also help the production of quality ball off the back of the lineout and it is in the set-pieces where the Bulls will find themselves under intense pressure.
“Obviously the Sharks have a very good set-piece set-up, we know they have a quality base there. So we need to make sure we put them under pressure there and make sure it’s a good base for us,” Spies said.
Under the circumstances currently at Loftus Versfeld, the words “misplaced optimism” spring to mind, but if the Bulls can regain the passion and pride that they normally possess at home, then they might just be able to dig themselves out of the hole they are currently in.
Bulls: 15-Jesse Kriel, 14-Bjorn Basson, 13-JJ Engelbrecht, 12-Jan Serfontein, 11-Francois Hougaard, 10-Handrè Pollard, 9-Rudy Paige, 8-Pierre Spies, 7-Lappies Labuschagne, 6-Deon Stegmann, 5-Victor Matfield, 4-Jacques du Plessis, 3-Trevor Nyakane, 2-Adriaan Strauss, 1-Mornè Mellet. Replacements – 16-Callie Visagie, 17-Dean Greyling, 18-Marcel van der Merwe, 19-Grant Hattingh, 20-Hanro Liebenberg, 21-Tian Schoeman, 22-Travis Ismaiel, 23-Jurgen Visser.
Sharks: 15-SP Marais, 14-Odwa Ndungane, 13-Waylon Murray, 12-Andre Esterhuizen, 11-Lwazi Mvovo, 10-Pat Lambie, 9-Cobus Reinach, 8-Ryan Kankowski, 7-Renaldo Bothma, 6-Marcell Coetzee, 5-Pieter-Steph du Toit,
4-Lubabalo Mtyanda, 3-Jannie du Plessis, 2-Bismarck du Plessis, 1-Dale Chadwick. Replacements – 16-Kyle Cooper, 17-Thomas du Toit, 18-Lourens Adriaanse, 19-Marco Wentzel, 20-Jean Deysel, 21-Conrad Hoffmann, 22-Fred Zeilinga/Lionel Cronje, 23-Jack Wilson.