Proof that isolation always hammers your game

rugby21 June 2021 05:19
By:Gavin Rich
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Dewaldt Duvenage © Gallo Images

It was Stephen Jones, writing in the London newspaper The Sunday Times, who said after the All Blacks beat the Junior Springboks in a tour match in Pretoria in 1992 that what he’d seen was “proof that isolation hammers your game”.

Apart from the South African team playing antiquated rugby, there were aspects of the laws and refereeing interpretations that the locals got wrong in that comeback tour from a long period of isolation.

As the Bulls were taken apart in the Rainbow Cup final in Treviso on Saturday, it was hard not to think the same was happening again. The isolation has only been 15-months this time, and not several years as was the case then.

But the message drummed out by Benetton, and which can be seen as a warning for the Springboks ahead of their return against Georgia and the British and Irish Lions next month, is that any kind of isolation from international competition will have some kind of negative impact.


Let’s get the mitigating circumstances that worked against the Bulls out of the way first. While South Africans, including this one, arrogantly thought that the Bulls would do to Benetton what they did to local opposition over the past eight months by showing their championship qualities, when the Benetton captain Dewaldt Duvenage spoke to last week it did start to become clear that the Italians weren’t a team to be underestimated.

For a start, as Duvenage reminded us, Benetton aren’t just an Italian team. They have several foreigners playing for them. They can’t be compared to the struggling Italy national team. And while their PRO14 campaign was horrible, with them playing 16 games without winning one, the fine print that Duvenage introduced us to was also worth heeding: Because of the pandemic and the bubbles, Benetton had no less than 14 members of the Italy national team that were missing for almost their entire PRO14 campaign.

You could go on and list several other factors, such as the 35-degree heat and the humidity that the Bulls encountered. In the middle of the South African summer that wouldn’t be so jarring, but they travelled from a chilly Highveld winter. It was also the first time in 15 months that the Bulls players played in front of a crowd.

There were supposedly only 1500 people allowed into the Treviso stadium where the final was played but on the television evidence it felt like more and the crowd was naturally noisy and partisan. That might not have even registered with the Bulls had the game been played a year and a half ago, but since then they’ve only played in empty stadiums. It does make a difference.

But none of that can explain such a big defeat to a team that isn’t considered one of the big players in the PRO14. A narrow defeat might have been almost acceptable as one of those shock results that sometimes happen in sport, but 35-8 was a comprehensive thrashing and a rugby lesson to the visitors. It was so one-sided that those who say it was a wake-up call for both the Bulls and South African rugby as a whole are right in saying so.


Whether it will really impact in a big way on the Springboks who are preparing to play the Lions, however, is debatable. What the game might even have done is justify the decision of the Springbok coaches to make up almost half their squad - 22 out of 46 - with overseas based players who have had international competition.

It would be naive though to pretend that there weren’t aspects of the defeat that did send out an ominous message about the impact of isolation, and as was the case when the Boks came back from isolation against the All Blacks nearly 30 years ago, the refereeing is a big part of it.

The downhill slide for the Bulls started with their failure to be on the right side of the Irish referee Frank Murphy when it came to breakdown interpretations. Even at that early stage, before it became apparent the Bulls were actually going to lose the game, I was spotting a wakeup call and something to be concerned about from a South African viewpoint.

It was the first time in 15 months that the Bulls players had encountered anything other than one of the local referees that they got to know really well during the seemingly endless series of derbies that were played across the Super Rugby Unlocked, Currie Cup, Kick Off 2021 and Rainbow Cup SA competitions that have followed South Africa’s return to play.

It was noticeable in some games in Rainbow Cup SA how familiar the players and the referees had become with one another, with first names sometimes being used and humour often injected into proceedings. There’s nothing wrong with that, except that maybe it does create a comfort zone that could lead to a rude awakening once you encounter referees you are less familiar with. Murphy was curt with the players and he didn’t coach them in the manner that some of the local referees do. When they transgressed they were penalised and that was it, there was no time for long explanations. The law is after all the law, in the eyes of the referee, and it is not his problem if the visiting team from another hemisphere has a different view of how the law should be applied.

It did cost the Bulls in the sense that it ensured they struggled to get into the game early on and that gave the home team, spurred on by a passionate home crowd, the legs that were needed for them to get into the game.


Bulls captain Marcell Coetzee, who has played a lot of rugby in Europe, had said before the game that the breakdown interpretations could be a problem for his team and they’d have to be on point. They weren’t. And it was also noticeable that part of the Treviso tactics was to neutralise Coetzee, who was the one player they would have known well. They’d also have known how dangerous he is.

They were very effective in putting that plan together and Coetzee wasn’t the same player he was for the Bulls towards the end of the local competition. That had an impact on the Bulls’ composure, and they just lacked the calmness they show when Duane Vermeulen and Morne Steyn are present.


Vermeulen is injured and the Bulls only really missed four Boks because of the decision to make national players unavailable for the game, but they were important players to the Bulls. It is reasonable to wonder at the logic, or lack of it, of the locally based Boks being withdrawn from the final of a competition that is the future for South African rugby at franchise level whereas the overseas Boks like Faf de Klerk were playing for their clubs on the same day.

If the Treviso result does have any kind of negative impact on the Boks, you could argue that the Bok coaches who made the decision to make the top players unavailable were complicit in the disaster.

However, the Treviso result is unlikely to be seen as a negative to the Boks. Instead, national director of rugby Rassie Erasmus and Bok coach Jacques Nienaber are likely to see it for what it was - a timely wake-up call that will just add further energy to the Bok preparations.

Another positive to be taken from the result concerns how the United Rugby Championship (PRO16) will be viewed when it begins in earnest later in the year. After what happened in Treviso, no-one will be thinking that playing in Europe will be easy. Benetton made a statement that the South African teams need to respond to. It will add to the interest.

Result of Rainbow Cup final

Benetton 35 Bulls 8