My job dictates that I spend a lot of time in front of the television and after watching 240 minutes so far this season of South African teams in Super Rugby action on New Zealand soil, it got me thinking – if the local quest to close the gap on the Kiwis could be measured by the praise dished out by Kiwi commentators, we are well on our way to that goal.
When the Blues beat the Lions in Johannesburg last week it swept in an atmosphere of negativity and given the unique situation the Stormers find themselves in on Saturday, with the team ravaged by a hectic strain of flu and hardly able to train together this week, I fully expect my Supersport.com prediction of a Stormers win to be wrong. The Blues could well end with two wins in two starts in South Africa and they are supposed to be the fifth best New Zealand team.
But if you think that is a reason to wear sack-cloth and go into mourning you didn’t listen to Tony Johnson commentate on the match between the Bulls and the Chiefs in Hamilton. When he enthused about how amazing it was to see a South African team that has backs that create and run into space, he was referring to something that has been a long time in coming. His co-commentators were as enthusiastic.
Unfortunately, it was again a game where a South African team impressed but still went down. Yet the New Zealand commentators were not being patronising in dishing out their praise. The Chiefs had to play well to score their unanswered 27 points in the second half that overcame a 28-14 halftime deficit. It wasn’t as if the Bulls were blanketed in that period. They created several scoring opportunities they just did not use.
In the end it was 41-28 and that might sound like a comfortable win for the Chiefs but the reality is that the Bulls were in it after the hooter. The last try was sacrificed through them running from their own line in their quest for the seven pointer that would have turned around a six point deficit (34-28).
Yes, we should be careful of dishing out praise when the team loses. Being satisfied with being second isn’t the South African way and neither should it be. But there’s a lot of sense behind that old cliché about Rome not being built in a day and it applies to South African rugby. You don’t just suddenly wipe out the huge chasm there was two years ago with the wave of a wand, just like you don’t turn a struggling Bulls team into a champion unit in a matter of weeks either. These things will take time.
But behind the scorelines in the games South African teams have played in New Zealand so far this year have been details and impressions that have contributed to the more positive story that has drawn favourable comment from commentators.
The Bulls conceded a lot of points in the second half in Hamilton just like the Stormers conceded a lot (24) in the first 20 minutes in Christchurch. Those passages of play were a reminder that if you get it wrong against New Zealand teams, even just a bit wrong, you will be punished.
Stormers coach Robbie Fleck is probably right when he said New Zealand rugby is a year ahead of us. But 12 months ago they might have been three years ahead, and on that dark day for South African rugby at Kings Park in October 2016 when the Boks were beaten 57-15 by the All Blacks, it might well have been five or six.
What I picked up from the Stormers’ last hour against Crusaders and most of their game against the Highlanders plus the Bulls performance against the Chiefs was that there is no longer the massive noticeable difference between a New Zealand derby and a match between a Kiwi and South African team that there used to be. All three matches played on New Zealand soil have provided good tempo and high quality.
The South African teams are still coming second but they are no longer playing slow motion rugby in comparison to their opponents. The metres of difference have been cut to just centimetres. To me that is progress.