The Vodacom Bulls and the Southern Kings provided the telling statements on what should be seen as another positive weekend for South African rugby in which youngsters Warrick Gelant and Damian Willemse were the shining individual lights.
Gelant was outstanding for the Bulls in their great win over the Cell C Sharks in Durban and now that his injuries are over he looks set to confirm the promise he has shown at Currie Cup level. Gelant scored a hat-trick of tries and provided the attacking dynamic that maybe the Bulls had been missing before.
Attacking dynamic is also something that 19-year-old Willemse has the potential to bring to the DHL Stormers. We should always be careful about getting too excited after just one performance, but Willemse marked himself as a special player during last year’s Craven Week at Kearsney College and had also delivered in his cameo appearances for the Stormers in other positions earlier in Super Rugby.
Against the Toyota Cheetahs in Bloemfontein he delivered a composed performance in which his running and distribution skills were matched by good management and skilled out-of-hand kicking, something that helped the Stormers’ exit game at crucial stages. He capped his performance by scoring a great try that he set up with an excellent break before taking a return pass.
Both Gelant and Willemse possess the physiques and skill sets required to become good international players in their positions and should be managed carefully.
Jan Serfontein, who five years ago was in the position that Willemse is in now, as he came out of World Junior Championship feeling like the world was at his feet, continued his good form for the Boks in the test series against France. There were several other great individual performances during the weekend that should have warmed the blood of South African rugby fans.
However, on the downside, none of the local teams contesting the Super Rugby play-offs should be completely satisfied.
The Emirates Lions could not have asked for more than their 94-7 win over the Sunwolves and have the ruthlessness about them that coach Johan Ackermann should be looking for three weeks out from the first knock-out game. All the Lions Springboks were in great form, and like the Bulls in Durban the night before, they underlined the confidence that was built in the three-match winning sequence against France.
But maybe it was all a bit too easy for the Lions. The Japanese team missed a ridiculous number of tackles – nearly 60 – and almost quite literally fell down in a heap once the Lions picked up some momentum. It would have been great for the confidence of the individual Lions players, and reserve scrumhalf Faf de Klerk looked like a world class flyhalf when he came on as a replacement in that position, but it was all a bit surreal and unrealistic.
It is not their fault that they haven’t played a New Zealand team this year. You can blame that on a soon-to-be-defunct competition format. But you do have to ask if a romp over a poor team like the Sunwolves is ideal preparation for the intensity and tempo of a game against a Kiwi side. The Lions handled it well a year ago, but that was a year ago.
What the Lions have done though is build up a winning habit of note, and they are also still in the frame to top the overall log. For them that last objective will come down to the last weekend. If the Hurricanes knock over the Crusaders in their game in Wellington, the Lions will have it all to play for at Kings Park in their final outing of the league phase.
Should the Lions end top, and thus secure home ground advantage throughout the play-off phase, they will be well placed to go one better than last year, when they lost an away final. But the fact they haven’t faced the Kiwi tempo and intensity has to be a worry.
The Stormers were some way off full strength in their win over the Cheetahs, so coach Robbie Fleck should be satisfied to see his side back on the winning podium. However, there were many times during the Bloemfontein game where Stormers fans should have been cringing at what might have become of their team had they been playing New Zealand opposition.
Their defence wasn’t intense enough until the last 20 minutes, when suddenly the line-speed became quite impressive and there was no way through for the Cheetahs. Indiscipline, in the form of penalties and two yellow cards to Rynhardt Elstadt and Pieter-Steph du Toit, followed later by a red for Elstadt, was also a major concern.
Fleck and Ackermann must both be looking forward to when the Super Rugby matches matter again, as must Cell C Sharks coach Robert du Preez. The latter was apparently pulling his hair out after the Bulls defeat at his team’s tendency to go off the boil in every second match, and he is right to lament his side’s lack of consistency.
To be fair, when the Sharks team was announced with several changes from the win over the Stormers, some of them enforced and others not, it wasn’t difficult to see the Bulls winning the Durban game. The Sharks had to start as favourites as they were at home, but the Bulls now have individuals that are in good form and playing with confidence following their appearances for the Boks and South Africa A.
Although it was a night where the Sharks simply didn’t pitch at the races, the type of rugby employed by the Bulls, and the amount of time the ball was in play, both in Durban and when the Kings won in Buenos Aires later in the evening, underlined the strides that have been made in South African rugby in terms of switching onto a new game.
The Kings’ win over the Jaguares was not something to scoff at and was their third overseas win in five starts from the season. Lionel Cronje’s men certainly know how to play enterprising rugby and now that it seems almost certain the Eastern Cape team faces an interesting new future in European competition, it is sad that the confusion over that future may have cost the franchise players who have opted to move on after Super Rugby.
Cell C Sharks 17 Vodacom Bulls 30
Jaguares 30 Southern Kings 31
Toyota Cheetahs 34 DHL Stormers 40
Emirates Lions 94 Sunwolves 7