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Diary of a freezing couch potato

The cold weather that hit Cape Town this past weekend provided a good excuse to spend almost all of it indoors in front of the television, and it presented me with a cross-section view of rugby that provided plenty of food for thought.

Starting with the Super Rugby clash between the Sharks and the Bulls on Friday night, and ending with the SuperSport Challenge match between Western Province and the Free State XV on Sunday afternoon, there was plenty to keep a rugby fundi occupied. And with the recent Springbok series against France and the magnitude of the Lions series against the All Blacks bringing both the sense of gravitas and the fun back into the game, it was an absorbing weekend.

1. Friday night - Bulls thump Sharks

This wasn’t just fun, it was also work, as I had to write about the game. The Sharks did look a bit flat but then you can only play as well as your opposition allow you to play. There was a lot of passion in the Bulls' effort and their fans must be shaking their heads in bewilderment that they can’t bring that level of commitment and togetherness every week.

Of course the knowledge that they are soon to have a new boss would have been a big motivation for the Bulls players, who know they need to impress John Mitchell. Mitchell will be wondering, when he sees the game, how his new employers let Jan Serfontein sign to play overseas. Warrick Gelant bagged the headlines but the player of the series in the Bok/France contest was the fulcrum around which everything went right for the Bulls. Gelant also brings a different dynamic from fullback, so it is a pity for the Bulls that he has been so often injured. One thing I can't understand is why the midfield of Serfontein and Jesse Kriel has played together so rarely.

Overall, a disturbing defeat for the Sharks, but they know that whatever happens between now and then, their progress this season will really be measured by what happens on 22 July, meaning their quarterfinal. For the Bulls it was a case of providing Mitchell with proof that he has made the right decision and, the loss of Serfontein notwithstanding, has plenty to work with.

2. Ridiculous time of Saturday morning – Kings beat Sunwolves

Let me be honest – I wasn’t writing the game and I ended up falling asleep during the first half. Not because it wasn’t a good game, but just because lying on your couch at that time of the morning – the game kicked off at 1am – is an invitation to sleep. I did watch it the next day though, and the Kings were impressive. Deon Davids has done a great job of building his team and whatever happens to them once the decision about Super Rugby participation is made, I hope he manages to keep it together as much as possible. They are certainly very watchable when they play at a decent hour of the day…

3. Saturday morning - Lions square the series

Watching this iconic series has almost made me want to wish my life away in the sense that I can’t wait for the next Lions series, which will be in South Africa in 2021. There is something special about this match-up, and it probably has a lot to do with frequency, something that has obviously been lost on those who draw up the international fixture list and organise the competitions. If the Lions played the All Blacks every year, like the Boks do, we’d probably be bored. One wish for four years from now, if you will allow me to get it in early, is that South Africa follow the New Zealand lead by allowing the Boks to play in some of the provincial games on tour. It does add to the interest and the authenticity.

I wouldn’t have predicted a Lions win in Wellington, but then I also wouldn’t have foreseen Sonny Bill Williams being red carded. There have been games where teams reduced to 14 men have still won. The Sharks’ epic win over Crusaders during the Jake White era is a case in point. I also remember a 14-man Reds side thumping the Stormers at Newlands. But it is asking a lot for a 14-man side to beat quality opposition, and the Lions are quality opposition. That being so, I reckon the All Blacks can still hold their heads high as, for a long time, it looked like they were going to win with 14.

The Lions forcing a decider would have been welcomed by most neutrals, but you could tell from what the Lions said during the post-match presentations that they know they may be reaping the whirlwind next weekend. It has been fascinating watching the tactics, particularly the way the Kiwis have combatted the Lions’ press defence by playing the inside channels, but I have a feeling the hosts might have a surprise for the Lions in the deciding test. Hopefully it will be played on a dry day. I expect the All Blacks to win comfortably.

4. Saturday afternoon – Stormers beat Cheetahs

Stormers coach Robbie Fleck was rightly satisfied with the win, but he shouldn’t be overly so. There were too many loose moments from the Stormers, and they will have ended the game knowing they made mistakes that Kiwi opposition will punish when they reach the quarterfinals. They could run up a big score against the Sunwolves in their next game but should make an effort to do it from a tighter base than was the case in Bloemfontein.

One big positive was the debut of Damian Willemse. The 19-year-old has the build and the skill-set to be a world class flyhalf. Let’s just hope he is properly managed, as there have been some prodigiously talented young No 10s who have struggled to make their mark to the extent that we thought they would. Perhaps we shouldn’t push him too soon. Speaking of which, what is happening with the Johan Goosen issue? He may be a problematic character, but it would be a criminal waste of talent if we have seen the last of him.

5. Saturday evening – Lions run over Sunwolves

That the Kings are having to face the drop while the Sunwolves are guaranteed inclusion in Super Rugby will only make sense if the Japanese union gets its act together and ensures that all the top Japanese players get to play in the Super Rugby team. At the moment it is not happening, which is why we get farcical games like the one we saw on Saturday.

The Lions won by a score of 94-7, that would have pleased one of their sponsors, Highveld FM, and it was hard to find any fault in their performance. Indeed, they are an example of what can happen if you keep the same team together over a long period of time and back them. The Lions didn’t have much opposition in the second half, but a team that had played together less than they had would not have been able to string the attacking moves together as seamlessly as the Lions did. The Lions appear to have that innate understanding of one another that comes with playing together often.

6. Sunday morning – SK Walmer beat Belhar

The Gold Cup has been a valuable addition to the South African rugby landscape and this match again provided evidence of just how passionately the communities support this level of rugby. Given the poor conditions, it wasn’t a bad quality game either, with the Walmer team changing tactics after halftime to recover from a deficit and score a deserved win.

7. Sunday early afternoon – Bulls outlast Sharks

This SuperSport Challenge game was one that provided evidence that it is possible to win with 14 men. But the Bulls would be justified if they argued that their winning margin would have been much bigger than just one score had they played the entire game with 15 men. Instead, like the All Blacks, they played much of it a man down.

The Sharks may have paid in this game for the decision to field what was almost a Super Rugby team in their last league match against Free State. They scored more than 50 in that match but in this one they looked discordant and didn’t gel as a unit. What I will say though is that Keegan Daniel, who led the Sharks XV, is still good enough to be in a Sharks Super Rugby match day 23.

8. Sunday late afternoon – Western Province whitewash the Cheetahs

I’m not sure the Cheetahs should have been left scoreless. The try that was disallowed at the end by the TMO looked like a fair try to both the commentators and to me. But it was nonetheless a solid performance from WP, who usually rely on flair but who, because of the wet, windy conditions, had to rely on their forwards and their field kicking game to make the semifinal against the Bulls. The conditions didn’t allow Craig Barry to produce his usual destructive runs from the back. Although the weather was a dampener, there appeared to be a great atmosphere in Green Point and the idea of putting on a Sunday festival of rugby, with a club game being followed by two provincial clashes, is a good one. So is the whole SuperSport Challenge concept.

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