Even more telling than the Bulls meek surrender in a home Super Rugby semi-final was the white flag raised by a third of the Loftus faithful, who either couldn’t afford the ticket price or couldn’t have been bothered once they knew that there would be no possibility of a home final.
Super Rugby’s expanded series has been a spectator flop. It has been a rugby flop and it has done nothing to aid player welfare. It has however benefited the broadcaster. I am told television ratings have never been better.
There is talk of Super Rugby running its course in 2015 and New Zealand and Australia forming their own competition in 2016 and South Africa, Argentina and potentially some rugby part of Europe doing their own thing.
It can’t come sooner because Super Rugby in the current guise is more a killer than a creator.
Season ticket holders were made to pay for the semi-final – and the lack of attendance was answer enough to the greed of the game’s administration.
The Brumbies all week spoke of the need to silence 50 000 desperate Bulls fans. Brumbies coach and former Bok coach Jake White described Loftus as among the most difficult places for a visiting team. Clyde Rathbone, the former SA under 21 captain, said Loftus was the most hostile environment in which he had ever played.
All week the talk was of the Bulls support base, of altitude and of the Bulls attitude. It was of the Bulls aggression and of their ability to play percentages, kick penalties and accumulate points.
Pretoria was eyeing a Super Rugby final against the Crusaders, who were favourites to beat the Chiefs.
Then on Saturday morning the Chiefs won by a point and the reality dawned on the Bulls players that if they won they would have to get on a plane on Sunday to fly to New Zealand … knowing they’d take a 20 to 30 point beating. The white flag went up before kick-off.
The players will never admit to it but they played like a team that didn’t want the humiliation of a visit to Hamilton. They did everything to lose the semi-final.
What a meek and distasteful surrender after seven months of toil.
Bulls captain Dewald Potgieter defended his refusal to let Morne Steyn kick at goal on three successive occasions in the period between 68 and 73 minutes. He said in hindsight the Bulls shouldn’t have kicked for goal to extend the lead from one point to four with six minutes to go because he didn’t think they’d get back into the Brumbies half.
He said he wanted his colleagues to have a positive mindset to the final 12 minutes. He would have had a point if the lineout jumpers had actually caught the ball and done anything with it when opting for the kick to the touchline and the lineout.
The principle of sustained pressure may have merit but the reality was a lot different because the Bulls on all three occasions never threatened the Brumbies tryline.
Potgieter got it wrong and so did the coaching staff with the selections and with the game plan. The tight five again was poor in the scrums, the lineout was a mess, the collisions belonged to the Brumbies and Francois Hougaard, at scrumhalf, was awful.
Veteran Brumbies flank George Smith was also given the keys to Loftus and allowed to come and go as he pleased.
Craig Joubert, currently considered the best of a limited bunch, was poor as a referee, but he wasn’t the reason the Bulls lost. For that the Bulls only have to look at themselves.
This was a match devoid of semi-final intensity and atmosphere.
It looked like an afterthought when compared to the colossal semi-final played out between the Chiefs and Crusaders. It looked decidedly inferior in quality to anything I saw in the Heineken Cup play-offs a couple of months ago.
European Cup champions Toulon versus Super Rugby’s best of 2013 in the Chiefs or Brumbies? Played at a neutral venue? The answer has more variables than would have been the case a decade ago.
White won a famous individual and team victory on every level. He outthought the opposition and then watched in amazement – and amusement – as Potgieter’s mind turned to mush in the last quarter.
The Brumbies played with greater intelligence and intent. They also played with more composure and the Bulls looked like the team that had traveled 12 000 kilometres to play a semi-final.
The Bulls limp finish encapsulated South Africa’s Super Rugby season. Forget the boast of having four teams in the top eight. When it comes down to the final Saturday the only South Africans in sight are those playing or coaching out of Canberra.