Of all the results this past weekend, the one that I didn’t pick was Western Province so easily dealing with the challenge of the Lions in the Currie Cup semi-final.
I enjoyed watching the Currie Cup semi-finals. It wasn’t quite Super Rugby and it wasn’t quite the vintage Currie Cup of yesteryear, but it was nevertheless easy on the eye and a credit to those who put it on the line in the 2017 Currie Cup semi-finals.
Bulls coach and former All Blacks coach John Mitchell described his team’s 37-27 defeat in Durban to the Sharks as being close to a Test match. That may be stretching it because Munster’s 14-7 defeat of Racing 92 in the Champions Cup was closer to Test rugby than anything produced in South Africa’s domestic semi-finals.
The Munster versus Racing showdown was deadlocked at zero-zero on the hour and the intensity in that hour was very Test-like.
South Africa’s domestic play-offs were enjoyable encounters but neither was of the class or intensity of so many matches in Europe’s premier competition.
The Currie Cup final in Durban this Saturday will be a step up from the semi-finals but it still won’t match what I’ve seen domestically in the Northern Hemisphere. Be warned, the Springboks, to be successful in the tour opener against Ireland in Dublin on November 11 will have to be even better than they were in the 24-25 defeat against the All Blacks in Cape Town.
The All Blacks looked spent in Cape Town after a season that has included three titanic Tests against the British and Irish Lions and six unbeaten Tests en-route to winning the Rugby Championships. These matches included two against Australia that doubled in a successful retention of the Bledisloe Cup for the 15th successive year.
In my Business Day column I wrote that I was not surprised that the All Blacks lost in Brisbane to the Wallabies. I was more surprised that there was just two points in the game going into the final five minutes.
This was not the best All Blacks line-up and it certainly was not the All Blacks in menacing or inspiring mood. Just like in Cape Town it appeared the All Blacks would do enough to get over the line, but this time lady luck would favour the Wallabies – and deservedly so.
They outscored the All Blacks three tries to two and always seemed in control of the match. New Zealand’s rare positive was the showing of Sonny Bill Williams, who reminded his critics of his breathtaking qualities.
Watching Australia finally win would have been hard for the Springbok coaches and players because it only reinforced that the Newlands Test was a lost opportunity to get one over the men in black.
The All Blacks certainly haven’t become a weak team in 2017 but they have become one as vulnerable as the next when mixing and matching and giving opportunities to fringe players. Half the All Blacks team that started in Cape Town and Brisbane won’t start the first Test of 2018, so they’ll feel a sense of triumph in 2017, despite the drawn Test series against the Lions and the solitary Brisbane defeat in their last seven Tests.
The Springboks need a big tour of the north to ensure 2017 is remembered as an improvement on the horror of 2016, when the Springboks won just four from 12.
The Springboks, for all their huff and puff at various times this year, are five from nine and defeat to Ireland would make it a precarious five from 10.
Defeat isn’t something I’d want to contemplate for the Springboks in Dublin, because if they lose that Test then France (in Paris) and Wales (in Cardiff) become decidedly harder.
For now there’s a sense of euphoria about the Springboks because of a narrow defeat to the All Blacks, but don’t be lulled into a sense of misguided ecstasy.
Similarly don’t start believing the Currie Cup play-offs in any way reflect or mirror Test rugby. They don’t.
I thought the Bulls would run the Sharks close in Durban, but just as I called the Wallabies to win in Brisbane I also called the Lions to be successful in Cape Town.
The Lions were the biggest disappointment of the weekend. I expected a more dynamic and composed display. The decision not to start with Malcolm Marx backfired. When you have a player in sizzling form then play him for eighty minutes, especially when it’s one of Marx’s quality.
The Lions got it all wrong in their approach. They didn’t respect the occasion and in play-offs you take points when they are on offer. Province were strong in defence, with Nizaam Carr again the stand out leader in everything he did defensively, and Robert du Preez accurate in his game management and goalkicking.
The Sharks young flyhalf Curwin Bosch was also comfortably in a class of his own in putting the boot into the Bulls.
Bosch will tour with the Springboks at the end of year but for all the hype around the Currie Cup play-offs I can’t see too many others forcing their way into the Springboks match 23 for Dublin’s D-Day.