Starting Handré Pollard at inside centre cost the Blue Bulls a chance of reaching the Currie Cup final, writes MARK KEOHANE in Business Day.
Just why Bulls supporters were surprised is beyond me. The Bulls, in the Currie Cup, have been ordinary and when gifted the advantage of the country’s in-form flyhalf, a young man who this year was named IRB Junior Player of the Year and in the Rugby Championship excelled against the All Blacks, the Bulls coaching staff opted to play him at inside centre.
It was a selection consistent with the Bulls’ struggles all competition. Pollard offered the prospect of something out of the ordinary. Instead he was wasted and flyhalf Jacques-Louis Potgieter plodded his way through 60 minutes of Bulls misery.
Potgieter’s first contribution to the game was an aimless 70m punt that ended nearer the stands than any attacking target. It provided Western Province with an attacking scrum from the point of the kick and it was an advantage WP never gave up.
The match was settled after 40 minutes with WP leading 23-3. The second 40 was more about winding down the clock. WP were never threatened and the only time they looked suspect was when Pollard moved to flyhalf on the hour.
Pollard is an attack-minded flyhalf. He's the South African exception and not the rule. He's a No 10, big in size and even bigger in temperament. He runs strongly and takes contact. He makes defences think.
The Bulls backed a donkey and left their only backline stallion in the stables. Pollard was an afterthought. Potgieter is a journeyman. Pollard’s future as an international class-act did not require a decade of travel from one club to another in Europe and from one province to another in SA.
Newlands was never going to deliver an epic Currie Cup play-off because the Bulls are not of the vaunted vintage of a few years back. They simply were not good enough.
The Lions were good enough to rip the heart out of the Sharks attack and then repel a third-quarter flicker of hope. They were ruthless in putting into perspective the Sharks campaign. The champions of a year ago found it easier to win the crown than to wear it.
The young coaching staff, instant winners last year when guided by the experience of technical consultant specialist Brendan Venter, looked more like the schoolboy coaches they were in 2011 and 2012.
The Lions, in the Currie Cup, have been the most enterprising team, if not necessarily the best. WP, league winners and hosts this weekend of the Currie Cup, were statistically the best, which is not a guarantee in a one-off final play-off.
Province, in recent seasons, have prospered in away play-off matches. The advantage of being at home in a final has been more a burden than a bonus.
The cloud of doubt will again be spoken about this week.
WP, hammered in last year’s home final, will be mindful of the ill of a year ago. They will be rightly questioned about another implosion.
The Lions have been a thrill a minute. They’ve played with a smile on their face and they’ve played without fear or restriction of failure.
But a final is a strange beast and I’ve never known an attack-minded team to play with such flair and risk in a final. Coaches tend to disregard what got them to a final, and the history of finals, in terms of a defensive approach, spooks so many of these attack-minded coaches.
The Lions will be under as much pressure not to change the league formula as WP will be to make use of a home crowd that will be unified in support, given that the Lions play out of Joburg and not Christchurch.
Neither of the finalists is significantly better than the other. WP won against the Lions earlier in the competition in Cape Town and the Lions won in Johannesburg.
The Lions, monumental at home, haven’t been as imposing when introduced as visitors. Their away form had an echo of Super Rugby woe, but this competition offers the respite of a few easy beats, which Super Rugby doesn’t.
The two competitions can’t be compared and because of this the Currie Cup can’t be the barometer for national selection. It is the feeder competition to Super Rugby – and it is a darn good one.
It is not the Currie Cup of old when the country’s finest talent played and domestic rivalries were of Test match proportions.
The competition will always be romanced because of its history but like the Bulls of this year, history must not be confused with reality. Super Rugby – and not the Currie Cup – is the measure of SA’s provincial strength.
The Currie Cup allows us to feel good about our rugby, whereas Super Rugby’s too frequent failures lets us feel disheartened. Enjoy Saturday because this is one final a New Zealand team can’t win.
Photo: Gavin Barker/BackpagePix