There’s little point in analysing the Crusaders vs Reds game. It was simply a mismatch, the score an embarrassment for the Boys from Brisbane. Coaching? Leadership? Conditioning? Morale? Probably a mix of those. The only real question that comes to mind is why the Crusaders started this year’s competition so lethargically, like the Bulls did. Now they’re in their stride but may have left it too late.
The Blues continued on their weary way, outgunned, out-thought and out-muscled by a Rebels team that thrives on its underdog status, wears its massive self-confidence on its sleeve and, through performances that last for the full 80 minutes, think only ‘victory’. Higginbotham is a star leader and player; in fact, sometimes, he’s a minor galaxy on his own. (I played much of my own rugby in ‘weaker’ teams e.g. Rhodesia vs Northern Transvaal – three matches all lost by 30+ points, so I enjoy it immensely when underdogs come up with a strategy that nullifies the strengths of the ‘more talented’ team, play on their few weaknesses, devise tactics which snuff out expected attacks, and feed off their over-confidence.)
Which takes us straight to the Western Force and their match against Sydney’s Waratahs.
Remember, the Waratahs are the holders of the Super 15 trophy. They beat the Crusaders at home in a thrilling contest last year. The victory was deserved but the bearing and demeanour of the Crusaders in defeat that day, stays in my memory as petulant, graceless and unsporting. How does the saying go? ‘If you can learn how to win, you have to know how to lose’. Gerhard Roux of the South African Sports Foundation many years ago, put it this way: ‘Win like a sportsman and lose like a gentleman.’
So now, as they’re planning pre-match, the Force know they don’t have the depth or overall talent of the Waratahs. They plan, accordingly, through analysis of their own strengths and weaknesses. I can almost hear Michael Foley, their coach saying that solid defence is a ‘given’, play it in their half, use the driving maul – where captain Matt Hodgson is a master marauder. Hold your own in the set pieces and then gobble up the scraps.....and get your kicks over. Well, Luke Burton has improved but he still either doesn’t practise enough or the Force can’t afford a really top-notch kicking coach. (I heard that over the last round of matches, Australian kickers averaged only 50% success with kicks at goal!)
From the start, the visitors looked bored and unmotivated. Despite their recent poor games against the men from Perth and environs, the obvious impression they gave was expectation of an easy victory. I mean, man-for-man, the Waratahs have the better talent, size and speed. But what the Force has is ‘guts’ and everyone has been taught that with all the innate ability in the world, it’s hard to beat anyone or any team that has ‘guts’ allied to drive concentration and determination. Winston Churchill said it when he spoke at his old school Harrow’s Speech Day in probably the shortest address ever given at one of these events. He stepped forward and said in his inimitable growl:
‘Never give up! Never! Never! Never! Never!’ End of speech.
A few things – Phipps was slow to the breakdowns, Foley was erratic, running, well ghosting really through about ten Force players when it was too late; on the day his judgment was uneven and kicking below standard. His backs looked lethargic and very, very frustrated. The Force was rock solid on defence for most of the game. Except, of course, for Naiyaravoro on the Waratahs right wing, whose try, brushing off four defenders to score, brought back memories of Jonah Lomu running over the hapless Tony Underwood in the 1995 World Cup. The four Force tacklers attempting bravely to bring him down looked like a group of lionesses taking on a buffalo. This N’voro weighs 123 kgs; it shouldn’t be allowed! (By the way, how long before the the national side is called ‘the All Black Pacific Islanders’?)
Anyway, from then on the Force either isolated him or blocked him. Frustration and desperation led to error, Hodgson scored his customary rolling maul try after a brilliant break had brought scrumhalf Louwrens a try early on. I could almost hear the Waratahs saying to themselves, ‘How can we lose to these Wild West palookas?” But they did....... for the third time in a row : 11 to 18.
The Sharks nearly brought off a shock win against top-of-the-table Hurricanes. Final score in favour of the home team: 32 to 24. A few points:
The Sharks’ try scored by Ndungane was a beauty, slick passing, the backs running great lines.
The Sharks gave away three penalties in the first 15 minutes for ‘high tackles’. It’s no good bleating that ‘it’s a man’s game’. That’s the law. Inexcusable! Dangerous and dumb! The legacy of the ‘Butch James Clothesline Tackle’ lives on! For the Hurricanes, Marshall at flyhalf, kicked at goal poorly. Things could have been a lot worse.
Apart from the above, the Sharks defence was determined and solid, except for.......it’s a pity to mention it, but in the end it’s one of the reasons, in brutal reflection perhaps the actual reason they lost..........the feeble attempts by Pietersen, Ndungane and Steyn to stop Conrad Smith. They handed him a try on a plate. At this level it was unacceptable.
Coetzee, well-supported by Mtwarira, Adriaanse, Cooper, the whole supporting cast, drove the ball forward very effectively. Somehow, the rolling mauls did not work on three occasions. All I can think is the home coach had done micro-analysis on his defence against this obstructive tactic.
With the home side up only 14 to 10 at half time I thought the Sharks would pull it off, but the Hurricanes must have received a right royal bollocking during the interval because they came back with far more purpose.
With 15 minutes to go, the Sharks were actually up 24-21! Then silly penalties given away eg. Captain Wentzel a ‘lazy runner’ followed by a very good try by Thrush in the corner.
I’d keep Cronje at flyhalf. Zeilinga doesn’t do anything wrong but Cronje strikes me as more influential.
The Stormers vs Brumbies game was a ‘bruiser’, lots of schoolyard friction and boastful puffing up.....signifying not very much. As a spectacle, it was, for the most part, dour. Schalk Burger is playing the rugby of his life; fearless, skilful, energised, driven! (Is there a movie in the offing? ‘The Incredible Schalk!’)
This victory can be explained in a number of ways but I’ll mention two: Catrakilis’ marvellous 45 metre drop goal and then, of course, the terrible missed conversion from in front by Lealiifano!!! How did he sleep last night?
So for the home side, how does the mantra go? ‘A win’s a win’. For the losers it’s ‘How the hell did we let that slip?”
Pride of place goes without question to the Lions in their astounding victory over the Highlanders, who must still be in shock. I was wound up.....early on, I shouted at the screen, I’m ashamed to say, in the first half when Boshoff kept kicking the ball to some of the best counter-attackers in the game. And then I used an unparliamentary epithet when Fekitoa ran in his 70 metre try from a devastating loss of the ball by the Lions in full flight. Without the benefit of seeing the whole field, I couldn’t detect where the fullback was. Well he wasn’t where he should have been. I was forecasting a real hiding for the Lions. (‘Oh Ye of little faith.’)
At half-time, the score stood at Highlanders 20, Lions 3. And then? The Lions came back to win ‘going away’. Unexpected! Unbelievable! (I can’t help the exclamation marks; they just keep popping up!!!)
Jantjies and Faf de Klerk came on after half-time. Cronje and Boshoff had played well as a half-back pairing, but suddenly there was more drive and zing. Ackerman and his coaches injected the players with some powerful legal muti in the dressing room. The mood changed. While the visitors started whingeing at the ref, perhaps severely over-confident, the Lions kept up an incessant driving attack, based on absolute, almost palpable self-belief, like a swarm of angry hornets. And they stung the Highlanders where it hurt most.
A word for the magnificent Jaco Kriel, he of the catarrhal voice in interview as Man of the Match. Kriel is not a good player or a very good player. He’s a great player. His work rate is phenomenal, his tackling secure, his running off the ball, his direct drives, and his finishing from all manner of situations, including scoring tries from the driving maul, are world class.
Jamie Jacobs, Captain Manu, Co-captain Ben Smith and all of them must be asking: ‘ How could we possibly have lost a match where we led 20 to 3 at the break?’
Well, in this case it’s fair to say, it wasn’t so much that they lost, but the Lions who won it because they wanted it more. After their usual infuriating slow untidy start, they beat their opponents by playing for 80 minutes and upping their game when it counted. Lions 28 – Highlanders 23.
One of the great victories!
P.S. Best example of ‘Tarkaspeak’, overheard while we were in Tarkastad:
(“Why did she divorce him?”
“He maar verneuked her on one of her cousins.”)