The bones, consistently accurate in the last eight weeks, took a beating at the weekend as the Stormers and Bully Boys came good.
The bones had predicted victories for the Sharks in Pretoria, while also giving the Cheetahs and Crusaders a win. The Force were also due a historic first Vodacom Super 14 triumph.
The Sharks defeat is the most significant because it ends their play-offs challenge. The Sharks, on the road, will have more chance of success than the Bully Boys, who once again showed their brutality when playing at home. The Bully Boys on the road are more gravel than granite, but in Pretoria they have the ability to grow extra arms and legs.
The intensity of the Bulls in the first 40 minutes was the equivalent of an assault — as Sharks prop BJ Botha would no doubt tell you. The Bulls had the bonus point by halftime, but they did not have the win until the final hooter. The Sharks were given unanimous backing on this site (70 percent of the poll voted in their favour) for good reason. They are a quality side and the manner in which they fought back from 27-3 to be in a position to win the game was revealing of the improvement this season.
When the Bulls’ intensity dimmed on the hour, the Sharks started to find space and a bit of go-forward and their ability to offload in the tackle, change the line of attack and run the support runner into space troubled the Bulls defence.
The brutality of the first 40 minutes, though, was just too much for the Sharks and their championship aspirations were bloodied on Saturday night. Another whose championship could be over is the Crusaders. I know it is a big call. They lost for just the first time in 17 matches and a year ago they were as emphatically beaten in Pretoria, only to then go on and win the championship.
But they look like a side that has hit the wall in the last fortnight and the two epic encounters with the Hurricanes and Waratahs seem to have taken everything out of them. They will struggle to beat the Bulls in Pretoria and the Brumbies in Christchurch could easily do them as well, which would mean they may end up fourth on the table and needing to win twice away from home to claim the title. They’ve done it before, but rarely have they looked so out of sorts in successive weekends at this late stage of the competition.
The Stormers, for once this season, applied the blowtorch for 80 minutes and should have won by more and scored the bonus point. The Stormers pack was dominant and the Crusaders have now struggled against the Sharks and Stormers forwards. I can’t imagine them relishing the prospect of Pretoria this weekend — especially with the Bulls having to win to stay alive in the play-off race.
Crowd support this weekend was brilliant in Pretoria and very good in Cape Town, given the Stormers horror run at home. That 30 000 still made it on a cold and windy evening tells you how strong the brand is.
Individually, there were some fine performances and most of them came from established Springboks. The Bulls lock pairing of Bakkies Botha and Victor Matfield were colossal, Pedrie Wannenburg has been the most consistent South African loose-forward all season, Schalk Burger was huge in Cape Town and Gary Botha and John Smit enjoyed a hectic 80 minute struggle in the front row.
Andre Pretorius showed more confidence against the Force, but again his goalkicking was not good enough, while Meyer Bosman would have backed himself to kick the conversion to sink the Blues.
The most pleasing aspect of this weekend’s matches is that every South African team played for 80 minutes, probably for the first time this season. The Bulls and Sharks were hammering away at each other on the siren, the Cats kept the ball for two minutes after the siren to score a match-saving try, while the Cheetahs also retained possession for two minutes after the siren to score a try that put them in a position to win it.
And in Cape Town the Stormers went in front after 30 seconds and never let up.
It was a heart-warming weekend for SA teams and while it won’t be reflected in Super 14 silverware, we could see the results in the international season.