The over-officious TMO who had an inordinately big influence on the result of an outstanding game was the only blemish on what was a highly promising and positive Vodacom Super Rugby weekend for South African rugby.
Okay, so the two games that had everyone gushing for superlatives only featured local teams. The Vodacom Bulls, though much more competitive than many would have anticipated for much of the game, did lose in the only match against overseas opposition.
Try though they might to embrace a new game, and make no mistake they are trying, it is debatable whether the Bulls can really be included among the teams that are part of the South African rugby revolution that has started the evolution to a new, attacking game. The bottom line is that they just don’t seem to be getting it right at present, and part of the reason for that may be that they are not utilising the strengths of their captain Handre Pollard.
Victor Matfield, in his capacity as a SuperSport studio expert, summed up what many must surely be thinking when he said on Saturday night that the Bulls are making a mistake by using Pollard as a link. His strength is to take the ball up, which was how he made such a dramatic impact when he burst onto the international scene while still pretty much a teenager.
Talking about teenagers, Cell C Sharks flyhalf Curwin Bosch is all the rage at the moment, and rightly so. Maybe we should overlook the fact that it was his poor clearance kick that led to the field position from which the Lions scored the winning try to Jaco Kriel, for Bosch did everything else so well in the Emirates Airline clash that headlined an exciting local Super Rugby weekend.
It was a game that was positive for local rugby for many reasons, but not the least of those was the fact that the problems that were evident in the beginnings of the South African metamorphosis last year are no longer there. Defence is no longer being neglected, and the old core strength of brutal physicality and strong forward play was to the fore in a game that drew an encouragingly large crowd.
It was indeed great to see the Johannesburg stadium so populated for a match that was not an international game, and the spectators who turned up to watch a riveting, entertaining spectacle will have considered it money well spent and will be encouraged to make the trip to Doornfontein for more.
When it came to forward play and physicality, it was the Sharks who made the big impact, and they will feel mightily aggrieved that they did not leave Johannesburg with a win that would have been richly deserved.
That they did not achieve their objective was partly down to the Lions’ fortitude and resilience, not to mention their composure when the pressure was on. It was the second time this season that they won a game late – they also did it in the first match against the Toyota Cheetahs in Bloemfontein.
That the Sharks lost was also partly down to their own indiscipline. Perhaps the aggression they put into their effort counted against them, for they gave away the initiative too easily at times. But having said that, it was definitely the yellow carding of Etienne Oosthuizen that changed the game, as well as the try that was disallowed.
The purists would argue that the TMO was right on both accounts, and if you do what the SuperSport studio people do and take out a marker to ring the incidents, you can just about make out arms near or around the head, which is technically illegal.
But neither incident was dangerous, the question was rightly asked where Oosthuizen should have put his arms when he got involved in the loose scrum under the posts that cost the Sharks their good try to Andre Esterhuizen. And then there was an innocuous later incident where Ruan Botha was penalised for letting his arms flail ineffectively as an opponent ran past him.
They were all relatively minor and a TMO not being overly stringent in trying to pick up every little blip – and let’s face it, rugby is a contact sport so if you look for it you will find it – would not have stopped the game. The interventions had an impact on the game not commensurate with the indiscretions committed and the upshot was that the Sharks were robbed of a win that perhaps should have been rightly theirs.
The Durbanites would have travelled home feeling disappointed about missing out when coming so close but they should have felt encouraged by how well they did at a venue that has not been kind to them at Super Rugby level recently. It is certainly a long time since the Lions were so under the whip at their home venue, and while they will be pleased to have retained their winning habit, they should be concerned at some of the potential problem areas starting to make themselves felt.
The Lions don’t play New Zealand opposition this year and went under-strength to Argentina so their litmus test of the league phase of competition probably comes two weeks from now in the form of the DHL Stormers at Newlands.
There is no debating the perception that the Stormers are the South African team that has shown the most growth towards perfecting the attacking game this season, and their mammoth win over the Cheetahs in no ways flattered them.
Although it is true that the other coaches all have a big role to play, and the Stormers’ success in embracing an expansive game is built around a strong set-piece, the benefits of having a New Zealand skills coach (Paul Feeney) in the mix are clear for all to see. Some of the Stormers’ catching and passing has been nothing short of sublime this season and 29 tries across five matches, nearly six a game, underlines the strides that have been made.
The defence was under the kosh before the Cheetahs game, and rightly so, but that aspect of their play also made a significant step up at Newlands. Indeed, it was the strong, aggressive Stormers defence that made the Cheetahs, who admittedly lost a vital attacking cog when Sergeal Petersen was ruled out before kick-off and replaced by a centre, look so predictable. It went a long way towards laying the foundation for the big win on a day when the Cheetahs did have more than enough ball to play with.
What should be pleasing to Stormers coach Robbie Fleck, apart from the flair and panache that has been injected into his team’s game, is the way talented young players have settled and started to own their positions. Newcomer Cobus Wiese is just 19 years old but looked like he belonged, and Dan du Plessis at inside centre is starting to confirm his massive promise.
The Stormers have a tough game against the Chiefs before they get to the Lions, and perhaps this time next week we might have a different story to tell about the state of South African rugby and the progress of the attacking game in relation to the Kiwis. But on the evidence of the win over the Cheetahs, the Stormers have a right to feel confident.
Highlanders 51 Rebels 12
Blues 24 Western Force 15
Chiefs 28 Vodacom Bulls 12
Reds 15 Hurricanes 34
DHL Stormers 53 Toyota Cheetahs 10
Emirates Lions 34 Cell C Sharks 29
Waratahs 22 Crusaders 41