10 June 2019, by: Quintin van Jaarsveld

SUPER RUGBY ROUND 17 – BIGGEST TAKEAWAYS

The biggest takeaways from Round 17 of Super Rugby from a South African perspective, according to Quintin van Jaarsveld.

Backline blues blew it for Bulls

The Bulls’ 24-all draw in Dunedin – their second successive stalemate on New Zealand soil – can be viewed in a positive light in the sense that they were expected to lose but, instead, picked up two valuable log points to boost their play-off hopes. Frankly, though, it should be regarded as a missed opportunity. For all the passionate power-plays in the tight loose and strong set-piece work, diabolical defence by a disrupted and disorganised back division denied the men from Pretoria what should’ve been their first win in Dunedin in 12 years.

Injuries to key men Warrick Gelant and Rosko Specman forced Pote Human’s hand, and in the end, the Bulls coach reshuffled just about the entire backline. Divan Rossouw and Dylan Sage stepped in for the injured duo, but instead of a straight swap for Specman, Sage started at outside centre, which meant Johnny Kotze moved out of the midfield and onto the wing.

Human also opted to rotate at scrumhalf, where Embrose Papier replaced Ivan van Zyl. The big boost was the return of captain Handre Pollard, and the playmaker showed why he was asked to hastily make the 11000km trip from Pretoria for this all-important clash. The Springbok flyhalf made a big impact, as did the man next to him, Burger Odendaal.

Collectively, however, the rejigged backline had no defensive shape whatsoever. This was clear from very early on and the Highlanders capitalised. Sage shooting up and creating a gaping gap for Josh McKay to score his second five-pointer of the match was one of several examples of a backline lacking cohesion and leaking points.

The poor positional play of the back three also proved incredibly costly. Two of the Highlanders’ tries came from clever kicks into space at the back. The hosts found grass and put the Bulls under pressure throughout, with Pollard having to track back and come to the rescue on a couple of occasions.

On attack, they also didn’t appear to be on the same page, most notably, when Rossouw stabbed through a grubber that seemed to only surprise his teammates as the ‘Landers pounced, launched a counterattack and cashed in with the second of their four tries.

Lions lost game at the breakdown

Ardie Savea’s sublime pillaging seminar at the Shark Tank shone the spotlight on the Hurricanes’ ‘secret weapon’ this season heading into the Ellis Park encounter. Their 2019 highlights package will be full of thrilling tries, fuelled by typical Kiwi flair. However, it’s their brilliance at the breakdown that’s created most of their scoring opportunities whilst, simultaneously, getting them out of sticky situations.

Those who had been unaware were informed during the visitors’ destruction of the Sharks in Durban that the ‘Canes lead the tournament in terms of turnovers. The fight on the floor would, therefore, have a major bearing on the outcome of the crunch clash in Johannesburg.

It’s fair to say that referee Jaco Peyper made some questionable calls that benefitted the visitors, but there can be no dispute that the ‘Canes killed the Lions at the breakdown. They were faster, more calculating in choosing when to commit to turnover attempts and crucially, adapted to Peyper’s interpretation of the laws brilliantly…certainly much better than the Lions did.

With their early read of the ref, they opted to concede back-to-back breakdown penalties in the red zone and it paid off, as the Lions settled for three points on the 20-minute mark. The tactic worked even better in the second half when they stripped the Lions of possession just about every time they entered or came close to the ‘Canes’ 22.

With a dozen, the ‘Canes clinched twice as many turnovers on the ground as the Lions, dominance made all the more impressive by the areas in which they were achieved. Savea, alone, made two turnovers on the ‘Canes’ tryline – moments after coming on in the 41st minute and again in the 52nd minute – and another just outside his 22 in the 66th minute.

Losing Kwagga Smith after 25 minutes was a massive blow for the Lions, but even while their ace ball-snatcher was on the park, they came off second best. The ‘Canes were also stronger in contact, which allowed them to gain possession by holding runners up, or, stripping them of the ball. They executed both forms of aggressive defence equally effectively. In the end, the Lions conceded 17 turnovers in all facets of play to the ‘Canes’ nine, and thus went down 37-17.

Stormers’ attack goes from bad to worse

In the three games prior to Saturday’s clash in Cape Town, the Sunwolves conceded 127 points. They were blanked 33-0 by the Brumbies, who scored five tries, leaked eight tries in the 52-7 loss to the Rebels and conceded six tries in the return fixture against the Brumbies, which they lost 42-19.

It is inexcusable that the Stormers failed their objective of picking up the full five points against the Singapore side, who for all their determination and enterprising play are firmly entrenched at the bottom of the log. For a few minutes, they had the bonus point, but ultimately they missed out, managing just four-tries-to-two in their 31-18 win.

Only one of those four tries had a hint of vision, with veteran Jano Vermaak – on for the injured Herschel Jantjies – kicking into space, where a good chase by Craig Barry and commitment by Jaco Coetzee saw the latter go over. Two came from driving mauls and the other was the result of a rather unique smash-and-grab turnover by Dan Kriel.

Even in defeat, the Sunwolves outshone the Stormers on attack as both of Semisi Masirewa’s tries were products of skilful interplay. The Capetonians have struggled to crack defences all year, and sans their two Damians – De Allende (rested) and Willemse (injured) – things went from bad to worse, with poor Dillyn Leyds the lone ranger trying to spark the side into life.

Shocking Sharks ‘out-passioned’ again

The Sharks were shockingly flat in their 34-7 defeat to the Jaguares. So much so, that a casual fan would never have guessed that they were in a must-win situation. They showed no urgency, no intensity and had no direction. The Durban side have been mentally soft all year, often looking lethargic, and that was once again the case against the Argentinians.

This ongoing issue had even prompted under-fire coach Robert du Preez to coin a new phrase, telling media his charges had been “out-passioned” at more than one post-match pressers after disappointing defeats. They offered very little resistance early on, gifting the Jaguares two soft tries and a handy 12-0 lead after just 16 minutes and were outmuscled and bossed at the breakdown.

They persisted with kicking from the base, despite the Jaguares easily fielding the high balls and using them to launch counterattacks from, and whenever they were deep inside the hosts’ half, they coughed up the ball through basic mistakes, as though they were dogs with shock collars trying to sneak into the ‘restricted’ red zone.

After 65 minutes, the teams shared exactly 50 percent of the ball, with the scoreboard reading 29-0. That’s how painfully poor the Sharks were with ball-in-hand. Rob du Preez Jnr, bafflingly back at flyhalf, with Curwin Bosch relegated to fullback and Aphelele Fassi dropping to the bench, spared his father more egg on his face – to a degree – as he didn’t make any glaring errors, but he didn’t make a meaningful impact either. Surely, starting with the inform Bosch and Fassi would’ve been a wiser move.

The Sharks played like the team at the bottom of the South African Conference, while the Jaguares looked every bit of the conference champions they became thanks to their comprehensive victory. The Sharks were fortunate that the hosts left 11 points out on the park with wayward goal-kicking to boot. They still have a mathematical chance of making the play-offs, but their latest rudderless performance suggests they probably don’t deserve one of the wildcard berths.

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