MARK KEOHANE, in his weekly Business Day column, says the Bulls were a revelation in Bloemfontein but the Lions’ defeat on home ground was all too familiar in Super Rugby.
The Bulls, rebuilding after the departure and retirements of Victor Matfield, Fourie du Preez, Bakkies Botha and Danie Rossouw, played with enterprise, maturity and conviction to score 50 points against the Cheetahs. It was a brilliant performance, given the relative inexperience of the side and the pre-match expectation that the Cheetahs would beat the Bulls for the first time in Super Rugby.
What made it even more remarkable was that the Bulls played with 14 men in the last 20 minutes. As with the stumble of the Lions against the Hurricanes, the humiliation of the Cheetahs emphasised just what a struggle the season will be for the boys from Bloem, whose squad boast a few stallions but too many donkeys.
Heinrich Brüssow remains one of the best loose forwards in the game and flyhalf Johan Goosen will become a Springbok, but two individuals will never be a match for a team playing with confidence, pace and intelligence.
A week ago the Bulls were accused of being one-dimensional in beating the Sharks, but the assessment was unfair based on how the Pretoria side have played in the last few seasons. They have, without fail, been SA’s most imposing and inventive side and the try-scoring statistics support this view.
The captaincy has improved Pierre Spies’s presence on the field as a player who can lead and do it the hard way. He is finally being true to his billing as one of the game’s most explosive athletes and one of the better No 8s. For so long the kid among hardened men, he is now the man leading talented kids, many of whom showed that good enough is old enough.
Bulls halfbacks Francois Hougaard and Morné Steyn gave contrasting master classes at scrumhalf and flyhalf respectively, and both have an appreciation of tempo and field position. They mixed it up wonderfully on attack and kicked with accuracy and intent.
They knew where they wanted the game to be played and they allowed the situation to dictate how they played.
There is nothing one-dimensional about this team. Better sides in the competition may force them into a more conservative approach, but when dominant, the mentality is there to trust their handling skills as much as their kicking game.
They can’t be praised enough. Don’t be shy with the compliments this morning and the generous acknowledgment has to be extended to coach Frans Ludeke, whose humility after the victory was consistent with his team’s respect for the ball and the basics of the game.
I like what I see in the Bulls. Then again I have always had a soft spot for the boys from Loftus Versfeld.
Not so the Lions because they should be getting better results. They should have clinically beaten the Hurricanes and the first-half naivety in approach and lack of intensity can’t be excused.
The Lions got lucky against the Cheetahs in the opening round, but at least they won and the country’s domestic champions needed to win again to make fools of those who refuse to believe they can be playoff contenders. These players, put on a pedestal for their achievements in last year’s Currie Cup, have to learn to play with the expectation of champions. There is no positive in the way they lost. There is no positive in losing at home.
John Mitchell has given the rugby franchise credibility again, but there was nothing credible about the defeat.
Where was the desire in that first 40?
Lions supporters must demand more of this side because they are good enough to win against anyone in this competition at home. I know Mitchell will never settle for two-point defeats. He can’t be the only one.
The Sharks in Cape Town should never have lost, but they did. Bismarck du Plessis was a one-man show in the pack, but he needs his passion, enthusiasm and excellence to be matched by a few more of his mates.
The match was typical of a South African derby and more physical than most international matches. However, physicality alone will make neither the Sharks nor the Stormers champions-in-waiting.
The quality of rugby was poor and the skill level was a betrayal of the talents of those on display. We know these guys can play rugby and do it better than most, which made it that much more disappointing for the 40 000 who were forced to cheer big hits and penalties instead of line breaks and tries.