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A bolt from the blue Bulls

The Bulls broke new ground this past weekend, and it went largely unnoticed. The Pretoria franchise has won Super Rugby, and are still the only local team to have done so, and have frequently had their name inscribed on that old domestic trophy first presented by Sir Donald Currie. 

Now they have the South African conference title to boast about after making sure of it by seeing off the Southern Kings on the same day as the Stormers buried their nearest rivals for the silverware, the Cheetahs.

The Stormers, still languishing on the log even though they’ve started what for them this season amounts to a winning habit, with three successive wins, are in fact the only other team to have held the conference trophy. They won it in 2011 and 2012.

When the Stormers won it not much was made of the achievement either. In 2011 Schalk Burger, when presented with the trophy at a press-conference, dismissed it as an irrelevance in comparison with the main prize that his team was chasing. As it turned out they fell well short each time, with the Crusaders and Sharks choking their challenge in respective semifinals.

But shouldn’t more be made of winning the conference, given that it is the only competition we get to see the South African teams compete against each other in a 100 per cent full-strength format?

The Currie Cup has been watered down in recent years by the non-availability for most of the way of the Springboks, and although the television figures are up, the bums on seats aspect of the domestic competition has hit the floor.

With the top teams playing each other in a competition that encompasses 16 games and a double round of derbies, surely the South African champion team is the one that holds up the SA Super Rugby Conference trophy, and not the one that wins the Currie Cup?

Fortunately last year the same side won both, but the Stormers/WP didn’t have to sweat nearly enough to win the Currie Cup – they finished third on the final log table and effectively broke their 11-year trophy drought by winning just two matches in the playoff phase.

So well done to the Bulls, who achieved something few would have seen in the stars back in February, when the Sharks and Stormers, and for good reason, were clear favourites.

Make no mistake, injuries played a big part in the demise of the two coastal teams, and they are still being plagued by disruptions even now, with Siya Kolisi the latest player ruled out of Stormers action for the rest of the Super Rugby season. Not that there’s much left of the season for the Cape team.

But the Bulls, lest it be forgotten, have lost a raft of legendary players in the space of the last two seasons. Victor Matfield, Fourie du Preez, Bakkies Botha, Danie Rossouw, Gary Botha…most franchises when they lose players of that calibre would take years to recover from it.

There was reason to assume when the 2012 Super Rugby season started that it would be the start of a rebuilding phase and the Bulls would just make up the numbers for a while.

It hasn’t turned out that way, with the Bulls making the top six last year before being beaten in the effective quarterfinals by the Crusaders, and now they’re the conference champions. That’s not just foundations they’ve built, it’s an impressive stand-alone building.

But wait, there’s something wrong with those foundations, for they keep creaking, and with each passing week it must feel to Bulls fans that they are watching the balloon soaring impressively upward while leaving the basket behind. For any stampede towards a trophy is being matched by one in the opposite direction – towards the exit sign of the Bulls corral.

Bulls CEO Barend van Graan says he is concerned about the interest being shown by overseas teams towards players from his union.

He should also be concerned about what the person charged with the contracting issues at the Bulls is up to. Is it just an impression or is it a fact that since that astute master of everything, Ian Schwartz, left the Bulls to join up with Heyneke Meyer, the contracting situation in Pretoria has become a disaster zone?

It’s not just the many players who are leaving that is a problem. There are also players leaving during the season. Juandre Kruger’s departure could surely have been delayed until after Super Rugby with just a bit of clever negotiation on the part of the Bulls. We understand that there was opportunity to do that, but it was never taken.

With Jan Serfontein and JJ Engelbrecht establishing themselves as such a dynamic midfield combination, the in-season loss of Wynand Olivier won’t be felt quite as much as that of Kruger. But it still makes no sense. Did the contracting people at the Bulls not realise Super Rugby extends until August? And why is it that so many players from one union are suddenly so eager to head away?

And we know it’s not just the Bulls that we should be worried about. A considerable proportion of the Springbok squad still hails from the Sharks, even though that franchise has struggled this season.

What is the fall-out going to be of the off-field drama that has led to the Sharks finishing the season with two co-coaches who were formerly assistant coaches but who will be joining John Plumtree by being out of a job at the end of this month?

Not everyone will agree, but the popular view after the Sharks scraped to a narrow but deserved 22-20 win over the Blues was that the team did it for the now ex-coach.

Certainly the awesome performance of the pack looked like the Plumtree legacy. Brendan Venter is supposedly coming in as the director of rugby, but we’re also hearing that he is bemused by that title – he thought he was going to just be a consultant.

In the meantime the names that are being mentioned as possible coaches to work under Venter going forward have no experience to speak of. At least not at provincial or franchise level.

Well you may well ask how you get experience if you don’t get a chance to coach, but surely the answer is an obvious one – you get your chance by being brought into an experienced management team. At this stage it looks likely the Sharks are destined to go from having the most experienced coaching staff to the most inexperienced, depending on how much commitment Venter gives them.

Hopefully it will all be sorted out in time for a strong Sharks challenge in the next Super Rugby season as South African rugby needs the Sharks to be strong, just as it needs the Bulls to be strong.

Experience, both playing and coaching, remains a vital ingredient of success. Let's hope both franchises come out the other side stronger from these lessons.

Right, back to the past weekend's action.

Here are our teams of the week:

Note: our weekly teams are selected on the past weekend's action only, so overall season form is not a factor. Players in teams with a bye are then obviously not considered.

Super XV for week 17:
15. Ben Smith (Highlanders), 14. Frank Halai (Blues), 13. Conrad Smith (Hurricanes), 12. Bundee Aki (Chiefs), 11. Julian Savea (Hurricanes), 10. Dan Carter (Crusaders), 9. Francois Hougaard (Bulls), 8. Peter Saili (Blues), 7. Jacques Potgieter (Bulls), 6. Siya Kolisi (Stormers), 5. Sam Whitelock (Crusaders), 4. Eben Etzebeth (Stormers), 3. Ben Tameifuna (Chiefs), 2. Scarra Ntubeni (Stormers), 1. Tendai Mtawarira (Sharks)

Bok Barometer for week 17:
15. Joe Pietersen (Stormers), 14. Akhona Ndungane (Bulls), 13. Jan Serfontein (Bulls), 12. Butch James (Sharks), 11. Bryan Habana (Stormers), 10. Morne Steyn (Bulls), 9. Francois Hougaard (Bulls), 8. Jacques Engelbrecht (Kings), 7. Jacques Potgieter (Bulls), 6. Siya Kolis (Stormers), 5. Franco van der Merwe (Sharks), 4. Eben Etzebeth (Stormers), 3. Jannie du Plessis (Sharks), 2. Scarra Ntubeni (Stormers), 1. Tendai Mtawarira (Sharks)


Form is temporary, class is permanent. Dan Carter's performance alone is enough for our Match of the Week title as the Crusaders downed a rejuvenated but in the end hopelessly outclassed Highlanders outfit.

Please note that video footage is for the website only and is rights restricted, and therefore only available in regions that fall within SuperSport’s broadcast footprint.

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We're going with a try tie this week, as both are incredible in their own jaw-dropping way. In the first one, the Crusaders' Telusa Veainu scores from the back garden of the end of the world, and in the second one Ben Smith gets the tick, but Tamati Ellison wins the Pass of the Season award.

Telusa Veainu

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Ben Smith

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Twitter files:

Here is this week's look at what players got up to on Twitter:

Who picked Butch?
'Got a few aches and pains Butch? Nothing a little acupuncture can't sort out. I'm an expert," said Craig Davidson to Sharks centre Butch James.
Love you, bro
Jacques Potgieter is known to be very close to his mate and namesake Dewald. But when he put up a pic from the game - a TV grab like this on twitter - confirming the Bromance we were a bit worried. Nothing like a couple of Pots, as they say...
Abs-olutely flabulous
Sharks captain Keegan Daniel believes he has found the new six-minute abs. The only thing that's lean here though is the one against the fence (place your own defence joke here....).
I'd rather b-eer than there
Joe Pietersen was looking for direction, and he seems to have found it here in Cape Town.

Won't be Russian back

We know it isn’t Super Rugby, but it would hard to ignore the disaster that the Moscow Sevens World Cup was last weekend. Supposedly the showpiece tournament, the IRB delivered a tournament on a sub-standard pitch in front of virtually no fans, and with a farcical disciplinary process that would make even the most partisan fans blush.

Kyle Brown’s treatment at the hands of the officials was just the long line of judicial disasters for the IRB. Think James Horwill, or James So’oialo of Samoa getting off scott free because of inconsistencies. Sanzar have done a lot of work to try and standardise the judiciary but it remains country-biased, and often ridiculous in its application.

Surely IRB there is something to sort out? That and choosing a city that can give crowds for a showpiece event?

Please don't burger up again

We wouldn’t call it definite, but Robbie Deans’s warning to the late night take-away burger hunters James O’Connor and Kurtley Beale is a warning the two definitely need to heed unless they want to become toxic like Quade Cooper.

The infamous incident, of course overblown by the British press, is the perfect example of what a team doesn’t need before any big game.

See if you can read between the lines on Deans’s admonishment.

“'You know the industry, who knows? But the critical thing is how you respond,'' Deans said.

''It's like the game, things are never totally as you anticipate or as you hope but you have to adapt and push on. I'd be reasonably confident it won't happen again. It wouldn't be a good scene for these blokes if it did, or the team, because that's the nature of the team game - you're only as good as your weakest link.''

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