The quality of the match was questionable but the one-sided nature of the Vodacom Bulls' win against the Lions at Loftus was never in doubt, writes MARK KEOHANE.
The Bulls were desperate but they were also organised. Enter Victor Matfield. The Bok legend, in his first start since returning from retirement, provided the calmness, the composure and the tactical input from the opening minute.
Matfield was eased back into Vodacom Super Rugby with two cameos off the bench. Two Bulls defeats meant his first start came a month earlier than he would have anticipated but the quality of the player is that when he starts, he commands presence, and it’s what he does in terms of tactical appreciation that makes him so invaluable to a young Bulls team.
The Lions stole a win against the Cheetahs and then ambushed the Stormers with a wonderful 80-minute display a week ago. On Saturday, there was no Lions element of surprise and there was no first-match cobwebs among the opposition. The Bulls, at home, were respectful of the Lions and clinical in their approach to fashion a win. For the Lions to win they had to offer more than courage and spirit.
The opposition now appreciates Marnitz Boshoff can kicks points from anywhere within 55m. They also know that when Derick Minnie doesn’t play, the Lions aren’t quite the bruisers in the collisions or at the breakdown.
The Bulls played it very disciplined and they played it very simply. This really was about them getting the win and getting some kind of confidence three weeks into the tournament.
The Lions, ordinarily, would not have been expected to win in Pretoria in Super Rugby, so it is no great surprise they lost.
The visitors’ limitation, as a squad and in terms of quality, was highlighted against a side with better individuals but not necessarily a better team.
Matfield, in being a leader in the pack, was crucial to the good start the Bulls had and with the forwards not beaten, it allowed scrumhalf Francois Hougaard to enjoy his best match of the season. Hougaard’s blemish was a charge-down kick that gifted the Lions a try a few minutes from the end but he showed the touches of the youngster who wowed South Africa in 2010 and 2011.
It helped that he was on the front foot and not back-pedalling, as had happened in the first two matches of the season. His decision-making was more composed and there just seemed a greater confidence among the Bulls because of Matfield’s starting presence.
Jacques-Louis Potgieter’s selection at No 10 was justified for the occasion, but not the season. There has to be an investment in the gifted 20-year-old Handré Pollard but Potgieter, a seasoned journeyman, provided the comfort of a reliable boot and decent decision-making. It was the right fit for a team low on confidence, but it’s not the right fit for a team with any aspirations.
Jan Serfontein, so talented yet so unimposing in the first two games, reminded the audience of his qualities and the Bulls also gave a reminder that, whatever the vulnerability of the current crop, a team visiting Loftus still has to win the collisions and have a few X-factor players to beat the Bulls.
Photo: Johan Pretorius/Gallo Images