The Sunwolves caused the shock of the 2017 Vodacom Super Rugby season as they defeated the Vodacom Bulls 21-20 to record their first win over a South African franchise in the competition’s history.
The Japanese team capitalised on a late yellow card to Springbok Jan Serfontein as they scored 11 points in the last 10 minutes to return from 20-11 down and take their first win in this year’s competition under coach Filo Tiatia.
With the result, the crisis at Loftus Versfeld deepened as coach Nollis Marais’s season has brought just one win (against the Sunwolves at Loftus Versfeld) from six games with the team returning home pretty much out of the running of any playoff spots in this year’s tournament and with a coaching team that will be fighting to survive the season.
The Bulls could have stolen the game back four minutes from time, but replacement flyhalf Francois Brummer missed a straightforward penalty and left them scrambling to try and get the result.
To be fair the Bulls have had a nightmare draw this season with just the one home game in the opening seven rounds, but even though the Sunwolves have improved this season and almost beat the Stormers in Singapore a few weeks back, Tokyo’s conditions are hardly the humid and difficult arena that the Cape Town team experienced.
Instead it was a repeat of the same problems the Bulls have faced all season – an impotent attack launched time and again from deep behind the advantage line, that failed to handle a rush defence and failed to gain momentum at any stage in the game.
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As with every other loss this season, the team’s attack is their biggest enemy as they fail to dominate or get on the front foot for long enough to trouble the scoreboard, and they allow teams to capitalise on a plethora of mistakes.
Just one look at the statistics of this game will tell a story of disbelief for Bulls fans – and remind those brave enough to remember of the 2015 World Cup shock in Brighton when the Springboks lost to the Japanese in pretty much the same manner.
The Bulls dominated every statistic – metres made, carries, passes, clean breaks and defenders beaten – and dominated them heavily. In a game where they beat 26 defenders as opposed to the Sunwolves' 11, and made around half the tackles of the Japanese side, it is surprising to see them on the losing side.
Still, anyone who would have watched the game would have underlined the fact that the attack was so impotent that the Bulls never really looked comfortable, even when they were nine points up on the scoreboard.
It was the Bulls' inability to attack, to grasp the moment and to find a counter to the Sunwolves' line speed that cost them dearly. The Sunwolves won 12 turnovers to four, and played mainly off the Bulls' mistakes. At this level, you don’t expect a side of the quality of the Bulls to be unable to launch an attack.
This brings the crisis full circle back to Loftus Versfeld. After all the talk of an excellent pre-season and a strong squad on paper, answers must now be found as to why they haven’t performed, and why the attack has been so poor the entire year?
It is unlikely the Bulls will want to make many big changes now, especially with the Jaguares waiting this coming week, but answers will need to be found, both in terms of coaching and conditioning, as the Bulls have looked way off the pace in both.
While the Bulls management were hoping for a run of games at their Loftus fortress to bring them back into positive territory, the shift in focus now needs to be how to fix the problem and if coaching personnel changes are needed barely halfway into the season?
The match was always going to be a difficult one with a few injuries in the week and without the likes of Handre Pollard and Lood de Jager in the starting line-up, but the Bulls had seen the Stormers make good use of their physicality, of the maul and pick-and-go to try and subdue the Sunwolves and put points on the board.
For a while this worked for the Bulls, but as in all their other games, their decision-making, passing and unforced errors continued to stunt any progress they made.
The Sunwolves scored first when they found the Bulls wanting on the outside and big number 8 Rahboni Warren-Vosayaco surged through the defence to score the opening try and let the Bulls know they had a fight on their hands.
A penalty by Hayden Cripps extended the lead before Burger Odendaal – one of the few Bulls to hold his head high after the game – broke through three tackles with ease in a beautiful run to score the Bulls' opening try.
Despite more possession and territory, the Bulls kept getting caught behind the advantage line, and playing deep became a problem as they went into the break 11-10 behind.
Even when they were on the front foot, they turned down kicks at poles and made plenty of mistakes – such as Tian Schoeman’s second consecutive week of punting a penalty to the corner over the dead ball line. This handed any advantage back to the Sunwolves.
Still, it seemed that while they looked to be running out of steam, they would have enough to sneak back onto the flight with a win, especially when Travis Ismaiel took a turnover ball and handed off two players to go in at the corner.
But then another mistake, and the Sunwolves attack surged to the 22, where Serfontein went in from the side, and was given the yellow. While the decision wasn’t the most questionable one from a referee who made more than his fair share in the game, it proved to be costly as the Sunwolves ran in the try to Takaaki Nakazuru shortly afterwards, and then watched as Yu Tamura kicked a penalty to put them into the lead.
The Bulls kept attacking from deep and kept falling into the same trap over and over again as they played without purpose, and more in panic as the minutes ticked down.
When the inevitable came, like with the Boks in Brighton, the Bulls folded not with a roar, but a whimper, and will limp home both in defeat and disgrace.
Sunwolves – Tries: Rahboni Warren-Vosayaco, Takaaki Nakazuru. Conversions: Yu Tamura. Penalties: Hayden Cripps (2), Yu Tamura.
Vodacom Bulls – Tries: Burger Odendaal, Travis Ismaiel. Conversions: Tian Schoeman (2). Penalties: Schoeman