Sharks, Bulls in a rut despite their riches as season reaches business end
With South Africa’s top teams juggling three simultaneous competitions – the United Rugby Championship, Champions Cup and Currie Cup – the Sharks and Bulls are unexpectedly struggling to cope.
Since the beginning of the year, the Sharks have lost six of their 10 matches in all competitions. In the same period, the Bulls have lost eight of 10 matches.
Why this is so significant is that these are two sides considered the richest and most well-resourced in South African rugby. They each have private equity investors. In the Sharks’ case, they boast 14 capped Springboks on their player roster.
After a horror run of results, both face possible elimination from the United Rugby Championship (URC) play-offs and their European Champions Cup progress also hangs in the balance.
The Sharks suffered their third straight URC defeat when they went down limply 32-20 to the battling Scarlets from Wales. The same Welsh rugby where players considered striking and where many professionals do not know what their future looks like as the cash-strapped Wales Rugby Union (WRU) tries to financially secure its future.
Director of rugby Neil Powell assumed coaching duties earlier this season but, after a strong start following a poor spell under Sean Everitt, the Sharks have regressed.
They were without eight current Bok squad members who were on a national camp for a month, which complicated things, but they were back to full strength against the Scarlets and the outcome was equally poor.
The Sharks, who have home URC matches to come against Munster and Benetton, currently occupy the eighth and final play-off position on the log. At least their future in the tournament remains in their control, although the best they could hope for is a quarterfinal in South Africa against the Stormers rather than an away trip to face the undefeated Leinster.
Before that, though, they have a home Champions Cup round of 16 clash against Munster. Winning that match is vital to salvaging their rapidly plummeting season.
“It was a very individualistic performance by us. It felt like the guys tried hard individually but we didn’t try hard as a team,” Powell said after the Scarlets match.
“We will have to come together as a team over the next three or four days and make sure we bring a team performance against Munster (in a Champions Cup match in Durban) and not an individualistic one.”
Jake White’s Bulls are also in a slump and, despite a good performance against Ulster in Belfast on Saturday, 25 March, they came away with nothing. The Ulstermen took the match 32-23 to leave the Bulls languishing in seventh on the standings after their fifth successive URC loss.
The Bulls might feel aggrieved that two television match official (TMO) John Mason interventions had a big impact on the outcome. The first led to a dubious penalty against flank Marco van Staden, which in turn led to a try for Ulster.
The second was a yellow card for replacement hooker Bismarck du Plessis, which left the Bulls playing the final stages of the match with 14 men. Du Plessis was deemed to have illegally tackled a player, but replays suggested there was nothing wrong with the challenge. White was seething.
“Cleanouts like that are all over the game, so I didn’t even think it was a penalty,” White said after the match.
“I often wonder, if their No 10 [Billy Burns] hadn’t laid down on the ground, whether that would have been looked at. It’s something we’ll have to look at in the future, because what you don’t want is a player lying down every time he gets cleaned out and he makes the TMO look.
“It’s something we’ve got to be careful of because I know it happened in football. And then all of a sudden, they brought something in that if you dive, you can get sent off [carded].
“In rugby now because there is such a fine line between yellow cards, red cards and TMO involvement … you don’t want the players trying to use every opportunity to influence the TMO.”
White remained positive despite recent results and a tough Champions Cup knockout fixture against European royalty Toulouse next week.
“I thought we played really well. I don’t think the scoreline is a true reflection of the way we played, but it seems to be one of those seasons where we do all the hard work and just can’t seem to get over the last hurdle,” White said after the Ulster match.
“People often talk about a game of two halves, and that was a game of two halves. We obviously haven’t won for a while and the confidence is a bit low, but there are positives.
“It’s a difficult one, and it tests everybody – coaches and players – but we’ve got two [URC] games at home now, and we have to make sure we take some of that performance and then get over the last hurdle.”
The Bulls face Italian side Zebre and the high-riding Leinster at Loftus in their remaining URC group games. Leinster are likely to send a second string team to South Africa, having sewn up top spot on the standings.
Stormers draw, Lions win
A near full-strength Stormers managed to produce the first blemish on Leinster’s record this season when the defending URC champions secured a 22-22 draw against the Irish side.
But Leinster fielded a second-string team following the return of the bulk of their players from Six Nations duty for the top-of-the-table clash.
It was still a pulsating encounter and showed why these two teams remain top of the URC pile and look set for a final clash in a few months’ time. The Stormers will have to be a lot better when Leinster are back to full strength though.
The Lions kept their faint URC playoff hopes alive with a memorable 32-28 victory against Benetton at Stadio Monigo in Treviso on Saturday afternoon.
Benetton stamped their authority in the first half before being outplayed by a hungry Lions outfit in the second half as the South Africans scored three tries in quick succession – two of them by Emmanuel Tshituka – and limited the visitors to one to snatch an important victory. DM