Innovation and skill were choked by the aerial bombardment of the don’t-lose-at-all-costs, 10-man rugby punted on the day by coaches John Plumtree and Frans Ludeke. The Cheetahs, however, failed to put the boot in nearly often enough. By KEN BORLAND.
So was the Sharks/Stormers match an intense, gripping local derby between two powerful sides or an error-strewn bore-fest that should alarm all those concerned with the health of South African rugby?
You will find supporters for either option, and an array of shades in between, with the 12-6 victory to the Sharks proving highly entertaining for those purists who have an appreciation for Test rugby.
You probably won’t find a more brutal, physical game of rugby in this year’s competition, with the Stormers’ defence at its famous best and the Sharks not giving an inch either.
But while both defences were rock-solid and the two packs thundered into each other from close range, the two coaches, John Plumtree and Allister Coetzee, may want to consider whether they ever tried to move their points of attack away from the edges of the ruck.
Sure, the ball may have been slippery due to the humidity and the high stakes may have forced them both to play the percentages, but the overall impression was that the skills of the players (and we know they have them) were being stifled.
Never mind kicking for position, the boot was also over-used in attacking situations and, with the two sides’ similar game plans cancelling each other out, all innovation and finer skill was choked out of the contest.
The Sharks’ triumph was built on the supremacy of their scrum. Stormers fans will perhaps complain that referee Jonathan Kaplan was hard on them with a string of penalties for hinging (shoulders below the hips), but Tendai Mtawarira and Jannie du Plessis, on the auspicious occasion of his 100th SuperRugby game, were clearly on top of their younger opponents in the Stormers’ front row.
With the result of the match hinging on just two penalties, those scrum infringements were crucial, allowing the Sharks to kick the Stormers back into their own territory.
“The Stormers hit you so hard that you can go away from your plan and then you end up on the back foot. So we just had to be patient, everything was about pressure out there and it came down to who could cope with it,” Plumtree said after the game.
If you like your rugby simple and bloody then the Loftus Versfeld clash between the Bulls and the Western Force also had much to offer.
The Bulls are famous for not playing with any airs or graces and the Force, written off by most after their stunning upset at the hands of the Southern Kings, took the hosts on at their own game and were actually better at it for long periods.
In the rarefied atmosphere of Loftus Versfeld, visitors need a kicker who can match the Bulls’ aerial bombardment and the Force had the big boot of Sias Ebersohn, a refugee from the Cheetahs.
The Force led 26-19 after the hour mark but sadly could not even hold on to gain a losing bonus point as the Bulls scored twice in the last 10 minutes.
The Bulls are a schizophrenic side at times, showing some superb attacking skills in setting up tries for Morné Steyn, in the second minute, and the impressive debutant wing, Sampie Mastriet, as well as a disallowed try by Bjorn Basson. But then for long periods they would revert back to 10-man rugby, with the boot dominating.
But in the 52nd minute, the Bulls were sorry they didn’t take a kick at goal from a penalty right in front, opting to set up the lineout instead. But the Force defended superbly, stopping the rolling maul and then getting off their line quickly to force a turnover.
Moments later, lock Toby Lynn was burrowing over the tryline and leaving the Loftus crowd sadly contemplating defeat, conned into believing the Force were also-rans, despite the fact that they had won three of their six previous encounters with the Bulls.
Bulls coach Frans Ludeke confided to the media afterwards that he felt the first-half display had been their worst performance in five years, but he would also have been thrilled by the way his team pulled themselves together in the last 15 minutes and returned to their strengths.
Their tightly-knit rolling maul earned another impressive debutant, replacement flank Jean Cook, a try, and prop Werner Kruger then scored in the shadow of the poles in the final movement of the game.
“The way we came back in the second half, the way players adjusted on the field, that was a special effort from the team,” Ludeke said.
“Last year against the Blues we were in exactly the same situation, we couldn’t get out of that grip and tonight we got back. All credit to the captain [Pierre Spies] for the way he got us back to things that are working for us, the maul started working, we managed the high ball, we forced some turnovers and we converted pressure into points,” he added.
Converting pressure into points is exactly what the Cheetahs failed to do in the first half of their match against the Chiefs in Hamilton as flyhalf Johan Goosen continued to struggle.
He missed three penalties in the first half as the Cheetahs dominated territory and possession, and then had a clearance kick charged down early in the second half as the Chiefs extended their 10-3 half-time lead to 17-3.
All Blacks flyhalf-in-waiting Aaron Cruden then took over as he set up brilliant tries by Asaeli Tikoirotuma and Gareth Anscombe to ensure the defending champions notched a convincing bonus-point victory.
A lot has been said about how the Cheetahs are such a wonderful attacking side, but merely throwing the ball from side to side does not constitute great running rugby. Just throwing the ball wide is as one-dimensional as the worst fare dished up by the Stormers, Sharks and Bulls over the weekend and it was comfortably handled by the Chiefs.
The home side used their forwards on attack to suck in the defence, before going wide and the Cheetahs have to learn to earn the right to throw the ball around.
It’s all very well just hurling the ball out wide, but defences are cracked by the sort of skills Cruden and Anscombe showed in that superb try: changes of direction, great hands, scissors-movements and different running lines.
There was no sign of that sort of skill from the South African teams in action this weekend, which meant the wins of the Sharks and Bulls were greeted with no great fanfare.
Nobody is writing them – or even the Stormers – off at this early stage, but there is no doubt there is plenty of work to do for Messrs Plumtree, Ludeke and Coetzee. DM
"Have no fear of perfection - you'll never reach it." ~ Salvador Dalí