MARK KEOHANE, in Business Day, writes of the glory of South Africa’s Super Rugby weekend.
Four South African wins and a defensive master class from the Kings, who kept last season’s Super Rugby finalists, the Sharks, tryless in Port Elizabeth.
Wonderful; just bloody wonderful.
I can’t recall when last I’ve so enjoyed a weekend of Super Rugby.
There have been occasions, over the last few years when South African teams have physically worked over New Zealand teams but the memory can’t quite find a collective working over done with such brutality and with such ball in hand buoyancy.
The Cheetahs set the standard in giving the Highlanders a lesson in how to play field position, how to counter attack and how to match physicality with intelligence.
It was the best win overseas I have seen from the Cheetahs. They did everything well against a team never allowed to settle or find rhythm.
South African regional teams and the Springboks, on a very good day, have always had the physical capacity to intimidate New Zealand’s finest, to put a rattle into their rhythm and to force them into playing extravagant but ineffective rugby, in which there is plenty of side to side ball movement but little direct impact.
These SA wins too often come just because of defensive desperation and invariably they can’t be repeated a week later.
What made the weekend different and delightful was that nothing was compromised in defence and something extra was found in attack.
South African teams played to their strengths, which are to embrace physicality and contact, and to kick for field position. But they also showed a capacity to think, to play the situation and to use the width of the field.
The Cheetahs, overawed against the Chiefs in Hamilton in their tour opener, physically manhandled the Highlanders players as if they were rag dolls. The Highlanders couldn’t match the physicality and with their forwards outmuscled and beaten up in the collisions there was never a platform for their backs.
It was a similar situation in Auckland on Sunday when the Blues backs spent most of the afternoon back pedaling as the Bulls marched the home team forwards back in contact and regularly embarrassed the Blues whenever mauling from lineouts.
Johan Goosen, for the Cheetahs, and Morne Steyn, for the Bulls, were the greatest beneficiaries of the physical dominance and both flyhalves showed their rugby intelligence in knowing when to kick and when to involve the outside backs.
South African teams have always been big and strong, but they showed they can also be clever and subtle at the same time.
The Bulls were marvelous among the backs and the only surprise was that they didn’t get the four-try bonus point.
Similarly the Stormers in Cape Town. The Chiefs, champions in 2012, are comfortably the best balanced among the New Zealand challenge, and they could have stolen victory in the final minute had referee interpretation not been as charitable to the Stormers.
Referee Jaco Pyper’s final act was questionable but there was nothing to question about the quality of a match in which 70 points were scored and the Stormers forwards finally gave flyhalf Elton Jantjies the front ball he needs to play conductor.
Jantjies and winger Gio Aplon prospered off the inspirational forward efforts of Duane Vermeulen, Siya Kolisi and Andries Bekker, and Joe Pietersen made every goal kicking opportunity count.
The Stormers played with greater discipline and balance and showed an attitude in attack that matched their intensity and discipline in defence.
The Chiefs unlocked the league’s best defence with grubber kicks but they never had enough quality first phase ball to build match-winning momentum.
South African players, when the desire matches the occasion, have the capacity to beat New Zealand’s best, but it happens too infrequently.
It is why the weekend must be enjoyed and celebrated. It is rare to shut out New Zealand three to nothing in Super Rugby match ups and even rarer is the out of ordinary manner in which it was done.
Our teams really have to back their skills and attack more.
The Kings, in shutting down the star-studded Sharks, displayed the defensive qualities of the very best in South African rugby.
The Sharks, especially with Pat Lambie kicking so well, were too good to lose but the moral victory belonged to the tournament newcomers.
The Kings have earned respect and even the haters can’t dispute the fighting qualities and character of a side so limited in class but unlimited in passion and pride.
Every outstanding quality in South African rugby was evident at the weekend. Our boys, in the four matches, defended, attacked, thought, snarled, smiled and celebrated.
It was a rugby weekend to remember, and it would only be polite and very appropriate to request a second helping this weekend.