Super Rugby may be dying but the north-south rivalry between the Bulls and Stormers is alive and well, writes JON CARDINELLI.
‘It was good to see a bit of blood on the change room floor,’ Robbie Fleck said after the north-south derby at Newlands on Saturday.
‘The game was about two fierce rivals going at each other, about never giving an inch. The Bulls threw everything they had at us, and we stood up to that challenge.
‘You could see what the game took out of the players,’ the Stormers coach added. ‘They desperately wanted this. It meant a lot to them.’
The Stormers beat the Bulls 29-17. That scoreline doesn’t reflect the nature of what was a brutal and at times ill-tempered contest, though. It was a battle for the ages.
In a Super Rugby competition saturated with meaningless match-ups, it’s good to know that there are still a few games that truly matter.
As many as 30,000 fans turned out to watch the game at Newlands. Crowd numbers have been dwindling for the past few years, even in the rugby-mad city of Cape Town. Fewer than 20,000 people watched the season-opener involving the Stormers and Jaguares in February. On Saturday, however, there was a buzz around Newlands as both Stormers and Bulls fans filed into the ground.
It was great to see the fans returning. It was great to see both sets of players striving towards a style of rugby that is both physical and ambitious.
Bulls coach John Mitchell said afterwards that the nationwide average for crowds in the 2018 Super Rugby tournament was around the 15,000-mark. Both Mitchell and Fleck made the point that the turnout at Newlands on Saturday, as well as the brand of rugby, was a good thing for the competition.
The contest doubled as a national trial, with so many Springbok hopefuls looking to make an impression ahead of the Tests against Wales and England this June. The players did not disappoint on that front either.
Siya Kolisi, playing in his 100th Super Rugby match, made an early statement when he lined up Handré Pollard and absolutely flattened him. That said, Pollard showed his steel by rolling with the punches – sometimes literally – and finding a few holes in what was, at long last, a well organised Stormers defence.
Lood de Jager enjoyed a good contest with Pieter-Steph du Toit at the lineouts. Jason Jenkins showed what he can do in a game of this nature on the blindside flank. The Stormers scrum, props Steven Kitshoff and Wilco Louw in particular, was on fire.
Pollard is the present and future of Bok rugby. It won’t be too long, though, before he enjoys some fierce competition for the No 10 jersey.
Damian Willemse won’t be available for the June Tests – due to SA U20 commitments – but don’t be surprised if the 19-year-old is brought into the Bok squad before the end of the year. While Willemse is not the finished product, he certainly has the raw attacking qualities as well as the combative mindset to go far as a Test player.
While the Lions bombed spectacularly in Wellington, the Sharks showed their potential in a resounding win over one of the top New Zealand sides in Durban. Again, that match showcased the talent in South African rugby, with veterans like Beast Mtawarira as well as rising stars like Rob du Preez, Sbu Nkosi and Curwin Bosch making key contributions.
Rugby may be suffering from a depression, but there are a few beacons of light.
Earlier in the week, it emerged that Sanzaar is exploring another expansion option that will include teams from the USA. When you read reports like that, you’re inclined to believe that the officials don’t care about the quality of the contests.
The irony is that poor contests lead to a drop in crowd and TV viewership numbers. The past few seasons should serve as an enduring lesson. Super Rugby can’t afford to expand ever again.
Indeed, as many have opined, the only way to save the tournament would be to cull more teams. Invest in a strength-versus-strength tournament, one that sees the top 10 or 12 sides competing in a round-robin format across the regular season.
Bin the conference system. Trim the post-season to four teams instead of eight. Lose the idea that at least one team from Australia, South Africa, New Zealand deserves to be in the playoffs.
Perhaps Sanzaar would do well to explore the idea of a second-tier tournament, which could involve the recently ousted Cheetahs and Kings, and introduce a promotion-relegation element. That would spice things up significantly.
These are the thoughts one tends to have when one watches a good contest, and when one sees a massive show of support by fans who haven’t lost their faith in the product just yet. I remember feeling the same way when watching the Lions play the Hurricanes in the semi-finals last year, and when the Stormers powered their way to a big win over the Chiefs during the regular season.
If the right steps are taken to ensure that these Test-match intensity contests are the norm rather than the exception, then Super Rugby may have a future beyond 2020.
If not, then SA Rugby must pursue an option that sees the best South African teams competing in the more meaningful tournaments staged in the northern hemisphere.
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