Huh? What? they didn’t play each other this weekend. Well, no they didn’t but there was such a marked difference in the two games that it is worth talking about it.
The results are done and dusted and the Chiefs play the Crusaders and the Sharks play the Stormers.
The Bulls played first and showed their lack of an effective captain, accuracy and game-plan. I’m sorry but Spies is no captain. There was hope that he would grow into the role both as a player and as a captain, but I’m still waiting for the electrifying young player from 5 years ago to re-emerge. A captain needs to lead his troops from the front, marshall them and interface with the referee. Frankly Spies comes up lacking in all the departments. I cannot speak as to his influence off the field, but what I see on the field is not great.
With Morne Steyn badly off form at present, their game-plan is in tatters. Without that commanding presence to place the high ball accurately or to slot the penalties milked between the opposition goal and their 10m line, the Bulls are shown up for lacking the expansive game-plan required to vary your game. This, more than anything, was abundantly clear that the Bulls don’t create space in the midfield. There is never an overlap opportunity, rather the back-line acts as slightly smaller forwards and crosses the gain-line like a battering ram for a gain counted in centimeters rather than meters.
The Bulls team has secured the vast majority of the top back-line talent at U20 level in the last couple of years and as a franchise they are reaching a crossroads in the next 12 months. Either give the back-line the freedom and the firepower to create opportunities or else continue to use brute-power as the only gain-line advancing weapon.
We’ve already seen Johann Sadie put in for a transfer away and this can be attributed to his lack of form and injury enforced absence, but I think at least some of it has to do with the Bulls game-plan.
The Sharks have also been a work in progress this year and their progression is marked and eye-popping. At the beginning of the season, Plumtree showed a reluctance to play his youngsters in the midfield and was starting with Bosman, moving JP to outside centre and even brought back Joubert from God-knows where. Once he installed Whitehead and Jordaan they showed a massive amount of improvement in their attacking options and suddenly JP Pietersen was swanning over the try-line from everywhere. To be fair, JP has hit a rare patch of form that we have not seen from him in maybe 3 years, but it’s no co-incidence that this coincided with his move back to wing and placing Jordaan inside of him.
Things only got better when Frans Steyn got back from France.
The Bulls loosies are also unbalanced as a combination. The Potgieters are energetic around the park and Stander was remarkable at 6, but Spies continues to fade, especially in the tight games. Again though with the contracting of so many young players: Stander, Potgieter, ex U-20 bok captain Arno Botha, IRB JWC player of the tournament nominee Shaun Adendorff and current U-20 bok captain Wian Liebenberg, there is a glut of talent for 3 starting spots at Super Rugby level. We have seen Stander make a call (despite his great Super Rugby showing and included in the bok training camp) and head to Ireland.
Are the Bulls a victim of their own success at breeding and acquiring talent?
the Sharks have Coetzee, Kanko, Daniel and Alberts and these loosies in various combos have been the form trio of the competition. Their defense is immense, but more importantly they can link with the backs to create opportunities. Keegan Daniel, especially, has been incredibly prominent as a linking player.
Both teams have tremendous hard-working tight fives that are great at securing first phase possession, with the Sharks front three shading the Bulls.
On Saturday the Sharks showed that not only are they devastating counter-attackers with genuine pace outside and the ability to pass out of contact, but also have the rock-solid defensive pattern that the Stormers have been using so effectively the whole season. This Saturday’s semi-final will be between two tremendous defensive sides that can both counter-attack with vision and pace.
It’s going to be an epic arm-wrestle with the deciding factor being if the Sharks can keep the pace up for 80 minutes after that huge game and travel. With this in mind and the home ground advantage I must favour the Stormers to shade it by four points with the game only being decided at the final whistle.