Can anyone stop the Bulls now?
The Crusaders didn’t mean it that way, but they’ve done the Bulls a huge favour.
Their comprehensive win over the Chiefs might have struck an ominous warning bell, but the big upshot was it helped propel the Bulls to the top of the table at a crucial stage of the Super Rugby season.
I watched the Bulls-Sharks game with great interest, knowing that the consequences would be significant as far as the log was concerned.
The Bulls did well to get out of it with a valuable win.
If would have been different had the Sharks kicked just one more goal, and may have been different had Butch James not been sin binned or had Wilhelm Steenkamp been carded.
I was one of Butch’s critics in his early days because of his tendency to tackle dangerously, but I’ve always respected his ability as a player. I have to say I feel just a wee modicum of... well, sympathy may be too strong a word, but if he was seeing the red mist a bit when he put in his high shot, I can sort of understand.
Steenkamp was lucky not to at least get a yellow. Even if the judicial officer, Kiwi Mike Heron, took a see-no-evil approach, a two-week ban suggests he wasn’t exactly playing (altogether now) tiddlywinks when he charged head first into the ruck.
It struck me that the focus in the TMO deliberations seemed to centre more on the James reaction than the Steenkamp charge.
The Bulls are a tad lucky that the punitive action did not take place until after the game, and in the meantime Butch lost the plot and copped a yellow. It was a big turn of events.
Now the Bulls have to face the Stormers, and if they can win that, then I’d say good luck to anyone trying to beat them at Loftus from here on. They are formidable there, and no-one would really fancy playing them at their fortress.
Not that it’s beyond the other teams in the playoffs.
The Crusaders have struck good form, with their big guns starting to fire, the Brumbies are a well coached and very effective team, and the Reds and Chiefs are the past two champions.
And of course we have the Cheetahs in the mix for the first time, after their win over the Blues.
The Cheetahs are a popular team among neutral followers, because of their rollicking style and never-say-die attitude, but what impressed me about their win over the Blues was the way they absorbed a good start by the visitors, took their chances when they came, and especially the way they bottled up the Blues' dangermen.
They allowed Rene Ranger only three or four carries in the entire game, and that blunted much of the Blues' attack.
So we have our six, and now it’s down to the last weekend to sort out who plays whom and where, and who gets a weekend off.
I’m picking the Brumbies to be home to the Cheetahs, and the Crusaders home to the Reds in the qualifying round, which could set up a Bulls-Crusaders semi.
With all due respect to Australia, the series win by the British and Irish Lions was a great result for rugby.
It is a fantastic concept, pitting the combined strengths of the “Home Unions” (their term, not mine) against the southern-hemisphere super powers. It is superbly supported by the most jovial, spirited fans who save their money for the trip of a lifetime, and are determined to enjoy it regardless of the result.
It is wise that it is restricted to a four-yearly basis. We live in the age of overkill, where top tennis and golf pros play every week, baseball teams play 160 games in a season, rugby nations that used to meet once every four or five years now meet twice a year and so on, so the Lions are a rare thing in that we are made to wait, and the wait makes it even more special.
But had the recent series gone Australia's way then there would have been questions over its future. The response to Brian O’Driscoll's dropping was ludicrous, and would have been the focal point of even more outrage afterwards, and Warren Gatland's career would be shot down in flames.
There would be the usual complaints of players from one nation being given special treatment, and given the massive undertaking, the manner in which it diminishes all else, the rather money-hungry attitudes that have arisen among the host nations, and above all else the lack of success dating back to 1997, then I feel sure there would have been moves to dump the whole concept altogether.
So for that alone, I’m glad they won. New Zealand’s turn next, in 2017 with the prospect of Warren Gatland being in charge of a Lions team in his native country.
There has been talk of a combined southern-hemisphere side taking on the Lions at some point, but I’m just not that sure there’s a need for it. The Lions are iconic, they are special. Let’s not turn them into a gimmick.
I thought the Aussies would win the third test, but they never looked like doing so right from the kickoff, when the normally unflappable Will Genia dropped the ball.
The Lions were helped by a string of early penalties at scrum time, and the eventually sin-binning of Ben Alexander, who was under all sorts of pressure.
The yellow card prompted a rather amusing, but thought provoking observation from one of our ReUnion production team: “Is there any other sport in the world where you can get sent off for being c**p?”
It also prompted an observation from our former All Black expert Ian Jones that referee Romain Poite allowed the Lions, and in particular Adam Jones, to get away with angled, boring-in scrum tactics that would not be allowed in southern hemipshere rugby.
But in the end the Lions were way too good in every facet, and that spelt curtains for their Kiwi coach Robbie Deans.
Deans was signed up to great fanfare back in 2008, when the Aussies boasted that they had bagged “the best coach in New Zealand”, but he never did quite fit in and his demise was inevitable, and apparently sealed before the third test even took place.
It was a clash of cultures. Deans took his hard-nosed approach that was so successful with the Crusaders, and tried to transplant it into the Wallabies. He again demonstrated a tendency to fall out with players, from whence there is no coming back. And his guarded style of communication didn’t sit with a nation who like their sporting people to be confident and assertive.
But he was also badly let down. He had good men like Horwill, Sharpe and Moore at his call, men who sweat blood for the jersey, but he also had to deal with a group of talented players who think they can be highly paid professionals on one hand, and recidivist brats on the other.
Depth remains a problem, and for all the talk, there is little evidence that those charged with improving Australia's performance at scrum time – a specialist job – have done their work.
There were two strong candidates to take over in Ewen McKenzie and Jake White, but after the unsuccessful dalliance with one “outsider” they were hardly going to go with another.
Much as McKenzie has had success with the Reds, a Wallaby team under White might have been an even tougher proposition in time, given what he has done to turn around the Brumbies, especially given the possibility of his old mate Eddie Jones coming into the frame at some stage down the track.