Cheetahs keep Bulls tethered - just!
The Vodacom Bulls consolidated their position at the top of the South African conference in Vodacom Super Rugby, but the Toyota Cheetahs’ brave win over the Reds in Bloemfontein has ensured a tense fortnight before the competition takes a break for the June international window.
The Bulls’ bonus point win means they have moved one point further ahead of the Cheetahs than they were as the Cheetahs won without a bonus point. But the Cheetahs do still have a bye to come, so there is effectively just two points separating the sides on the log as it stands and as both teams head into a series of derby matches that will decide the conference.
Although the Bulls are still tethered, they could still be running free by the time the international window arrives, with the last game before the June break, the clash between the Cheetahs and Bulls at Free State Stadium on 1 June, now looming as a potential eliminator. The Bulls have to go to Durban this weekend, and that could be tough for them.
Pierre Spies’s team has been outstanding at home over the last few weeks, but apart from good away wins over the Blues and the Kings, they haven’t been as confident and poised when playing away from Loftus. Indeed, the big loss to the Crusaders in Christchurch remains as an uncomfortable reminder of how tough it would be for the Bulls to win this competition if they had to go overseas to do it.
But they were also unlucky in some of their overseas matches. The TMO in Brisbane and the referee in Canberra conspired to prevent them from perhaps returning to South Africa with a better record than one of played four and lost three.
The refereeing and officiating has been diabolical this season, and let’s not get started again on the most recent controversy in Melbourne this past weekend! Clearly the Sanzar decision makers are going to have to take another look at the policy of having home town TMOs, although the problem possibly goes a lot deeper than that.
It’s also high time the South African administrators started to stand up to the situation that perpetuates itself year after year of being ganged up on by the other two member nations in Sanzar to force policy as well as the imbalance that appears to exist when it comes to citings and punishments meted out.
The Stormers were fined more than J Arthur Brown was for what we understand was nothing more than the letting go of a couple of expletives in a match in Palmerston North where, let’s be honest, Steve Walsh was so poor that he should have been fined. People with local refereeing experience tell me the benches of every team in the competition get involved in the game and are inclined sometimes to get over-excited, and it is seen to come with the territory.
TWO-HORSE RACE FOR CONFERENCE HONOURS
The Stormers admitted they were wrong and would probably have been happy to pay a fine - a reasonable one, not R225 000 - the day after the incident, but it got dragged out and made into a far bigger deal than it should have been.
Instead of just moving on they had the disciplinary hanging over them throughout the tour. As for the citings, the Sharks were flummoxed at the two attempted citings against them on tour. In neither of the Frans Steyn and Pieter-Steph du Toit incidents did it ever look like the citing would stick, but the citings were made anyway and it disrupted the Sharks’ preparations for the next games.
This in the same month that the punching and other repeated infringements of Ben Franks didn’t even warrant a card from Walsh in the Stormers game in Palmerston North even though they were blatant, and there wasn’t even a citing. In contrast to the New Zealand and Australian attitudes, the South African one seems to be one of being hospitable, something that dates backs to the first years of the comeback from isolation when local officials were just so thankful to be back on the world stage.
But it is now more than 20 year since South Africa was readmitted to world sport and it is time for some of the country’s administrators to stop feeling that they must lie down and be tickled by their Sanzar partners when they should really be standing up against what at times appears to be injustice. When Kiwi and Aussie teams come to South Africa you get the feeling a weapon would have to be drawn for a citing to take place.
Back to the rugby though – I did try not to go on, but couldn’t help myself. The Cheetahs’ defence was outstanding against the Reds, who at the start of the game certainly looked good enough to justify their pre-match tag as favourites to win. The quality of the Cheetahs’ effort in repelling the Brisbane team only confirms what an error they made in underestimating the Hurricanes the week before.
The Bulls won in Pretoria as you would have expected them to -- they were never challenged by a Highlanders team that had been outplayed by the Southern Kings the previous week. Talking of the Kings, they can play the role of competition spoilers when they host the Cheetahs this week, and the Cheetahs are going to have to make sure they are focused or they could make life a lot easier for the Bulls in what is now definitely a two-horse race for conference honours.
Of course, there is more than just the conference title up for grabs. The Cheetahs will still have plenty to play for even if they do drop points over the next few weeks as they are on the fringes of the top six and at the moment look good for a wildcard entry into the playoffs at the very least, remembering of course that they have a bye and four guaranteed log points coming their way in the last week.
The Sharks and Stormers’ interest in the conference title and the playoffs is effectively over, but the Sharks will be pleased to have gotten back on the bicycle and broken what was becoming a losing habit in their final tour match in Perth. Springbok selection is due soon, and that, plus the confidence that comes with getting back on the winning track, may just be bad news for the Bulls.
The Stormers play the Reds this coming weekend in a game that is of no relevance to the South African conference except possibly to the battle to avoid relegation. If the Stormers lose to the Reds and the Kings beat the Cheetahs, the relegation issue is going to start becoming interesting. The Stormers play the Kings in Cape Town the following week.
Of the overseas teams, the Waratahs looked the best of them this past weekend, although the Crusaders are starting to build up impressive momentum in the New Zealand conference and were full value for their emphatic win over the Blues in Christchurch.
Hurricanes 12 Chiefs 17
Rebels 30 DHL Stormers 21
Western Force 13 Sharks 23
Crusaders 23 Blues 3
Waratahs 28 Brumbies 22
Vodacom Bulls 35 Highlanders 18
Toyota Cheetahs 27 Reds 13