SARugbymag.co.za highlights five talking points after domestic rugby returned to South Africa with Super Fan Saturday in Pretoria.
White takes Bulls back to roots
The Vodacom Bulls got their new era under director of rugby and head coach Jake White off to a smashing start after outplaying the Sharks for a 49-28 win after leading 35-7 at the break.
After undergoing a squad overhaul during the Covid-19-enforced six-month break, it was expected that the Bulls reverted to their traditional strengths of a forward-dominated, kick-heavy approach.
As it would happen, the Bulls put in a tactical masterclass, opening up an early lead through a maul try, contestable kick try and a turnover try.
Even when the Sharks got momentum in the first half, they found themselves stifled by an in-your-face Bulls defence, which put them under plenty of pressure at the breakdown.
It was certainly a statement of intent against the team that had topped the Super Rugby standings and were comfortably South Africa’s best side back in March.
Sevens stars to add X factor
While the Bulls pack got plenty of praise for the manner in which they outmuscled the Sharks, the performance of their backs also caught the eye.
Cornal Hendricks was surprisingly named at inside centre. The 32-year-old has mostly been used on the right wing for the Bulls, but was tried at outside centre under former head coach Pote Human with mixed success.
Outside Hendricks, there were two Blitzboks in Stedman Gans and Kurt-Lee Arendse. Gans had previously played for the Bulls at Currie Cup level, while Arendse was playing his first official game of fifteens since starring for the University of the Western Cape in the Varsity Cup.
However, the trio all put in excellent performances, bringing dynamism and guile to a Bulls backline that had looked lost for ideas back in March. Gans scored a try after chasing a kick from Morne Steyn and assisted another when he ran an excellent line on to a pass from Steyn to set up Travis Ismaiel. Arendse bagged a brace of tries, one of them coming from an 80-metre run when the Bulls won a turnover inside their own 22.
Meanwhile, the Sharks also had a former sevens star in Werner Kok, who was playing in his first outing for the side since joining from Toulouse. While he ended up on the losing side, Kok grafted well and looked one of the more dangerous players in the Sharks backline.
Gelant will add new dimension to Stormers
With all the changes that had gone on with the Bulls squad, the Stormers also benefited by bringing fullback Warrick Gelant back to the Western Cape.
The Stormers would have been overjoyed with the performance of their star signing, who has spoken about becoming a more ‘complete fullback’ with the team.
Not only did Gelant help Damian Willemse control the game with a few well-placed kicks, but he also constantly tested the line and grabbed a try when he sliced through the defence after spotting two Lions front rowers ahead of him.
Players show fitness at altitude
A major concern for the South African franchise coaches would have been how their players adapted to their first real run-out, with a risk of injuries to star players.
However, the good news was that all four teams came through the day relatively unscathed, despite this being the first competitive bit of rugby the players had experienced in six months.
Stormers coach John Dobson, who only took a 25-man squad to Pretoria, was especially pleased with how his side had coped with playing at altitude.
‘We didn’t bring up 30 players because we wanted a few to play the full 80 minutes and the Lions very nearly caught us. I thought we were quite lucky to hold on but we showed a reasonable amount of character.
‘To get through 80 minutes at altitude after a wet Cape winter and get a result makes me proud of Siya and the team,’ Dobson added.
South African rugby has bright future
With many of the coaches naming expanded 30-man squads for Saturday’s action, there was a chance for a few relatively unknown names to get a first run out for their senior sides.
Many of these players are likely to be involved in the five-team U21 Championship in October, which will be played in a ‘bubble’ in Johannesburg.
The Sharks had several youngsters involved in their outing against the Bulls, with another sevens player in Muller du Plessis starting on the wing, while loose forwards Evan Roos and Celimpilo Gumede as well as hooker Dylan Richardson, looked up for the challenge against a more experienced Bulls pack. Junior Springbok scrumhalf Jaden Hendrickse brought a good amount of control to proceedings, while hooker Dan Jooste – a signing from Western Province – scored a deserved try in the second half.
The Bulls also gave their fans a glimpse into the future as they brought young prop Jan-Hendrik Wessels off the bench, someone Jake White likened to Bok great Os du Randt in the buildup to Saturday.
While the Stormers tired in the second half, loose forward Nama Xaba – who replaced skipper Siya Kolisi at half time – was a constant menace at the breakdown and put in a number of big tackles.
The Lions were able to welcome another promising player in Gianni Lombard back to the team after he recovered from a terrible knee injury suffered in 2019. Lombard had already made his Super Rugby debut and was paired with Elton Jantjies in a 10-12 combination last year.
Photo: Sydney Seshibedi/Gallo Images