WRAP: Red-hot Highveld sides sizzle as big league awaits
The searing heat on the Highveld, with temperatures in the red, did little to stop the up-country sides scorching their way to victories while the two coastal South African franchises may have had different fortunes but have the same food for thought as attention now turns to Champions Cup action.
The latest round of Vodacom United Rugby Championship action confirmed that the Vodacom Bulls’ recent surge in form is no fluke as they demolished a poor Hollywoodbets Sharks side with relative ease, confounding the hopes of the classic South African derby.
The Emirates Lions, for their part, saw red, but it only served to anger them more as they ran in six tries with 14 men to beat a poor Gwent Dragons side that looked out of their depth in this competition.
And down south in Cape Town, the DHL Stormers returned to snap a losing streak, but would, by their own admission, be a lot less pleased than they normally would be with another performance where it seemed they were stuck between two game plans.
All in all, three out of four wins (with the fourth being a mathematical impossibility because of the derby) is all South African rugby could ask for, especially in the lead-up to a massive weekend of Champions Cup rugby.
LOFTUS SIZZLES, AS THE SHARKS WILT
It’s hard to say there was as much of a difference between the Bulls and Sharks as the 44-10 scoreline suggests, but there certainly was a contrast between a side that knew exactly what they wanted to do and how to execute their game plan and a side that still seem to be finding their feet under new coach John Plumtree.
After the 60-point win over Dragons and with a number of their Springboks back in action, the Sharks would have expected a much better performance from their stars. Apart from Lukhanyo Am, it seemed many of them were in second gear and struggled to get out of it.
It’s hard to think that there isn’t something missing in the Durban franchise’s camp at the moment, especially if the amount of talent they have on their books can’t produce a better result at Loftus, and Plumtree has been brutally honest about the overhaul in culture that the team need to go through.
Sharks fans will be a bit happier to know that there is a plan and it has the buy-in from the coaching team but these things take time, and unless there are signs of improvement, the Sharks are going to have some extra pressure on them given their big budget and the lack of results.
One home win from six games is hardly what their fans expect and Loftus exposed a lack of enthusiasm and commitment, especially on defence, that will have to be addressed.
Contrary to this, and while the Bulls are nowhere near perfect, they seem to have found their groove in so many ways, with a young pair of locks stepping up in the absence of their regulars. Even without their two captains - Ruan Nortje and Marcell Coetzee - the Bulls never looked as if they were going to take a step back in terms of physicality and commitment.
Key to this was the leadership of Elrigh Louw, who took over the captaincy and led from the front, making a monstrous 15 tackles on the day, but the work of his loose trio, Marco van Staden and particularly the young upstart Cameron Hanekom had a lot to do with that.
Then the fact that the Bulls seem to have found their ideal midfield pairing - with Stedman Gans scoring a brace and David Kriel moving smoothly into the 12 role - has certainly helped and opened up more than a few opportunities for their World Cup-winning back three.
There seems - at this stage - to be a composure in the Bulls team that the other South African franchises lack, with their two playmakers - Johan Goosen and Willie le Roux - able to direct play almost at will.
At the end of the day, it wasn’t that they were so much better than the Sharks, they were simply more clinical, used their opportunities, and looked like a team hungry to play.
It’s early days yet, but no wonder Jake White is smiling from ear to ear.
RED MEANS GO FOR THE LIONS
There may be plenty of debate in the coming days regarding the wisdom of referee Andrea Piardi’s red-card decision for Ruben Schoeman - primarily because he said as the lock went up to try and charge down a kick, he braced for impact and wasn’t allowed to do that.
The decision left many perplexed about how that warranted a red card and would have had the anxiety levels among the Lions supporters raised to full tilt, especially as the incident took place in the 26th minute.
But probably the most heartening thing was that this didn’t stop them from playing their brand of rugby on the hard pitch on the highveld.
And while the Dragons were a lot more competitive than they were in Durban a week earlier, the key to the Lions' six-try victory was their self-belief to run from almost anywhere and back themselves to get the results.
The try for Quan Horn shortly after the red card was the perfect example, started by an epic run inside their own 22. The Lions seem to have adopted a “run them ragged or die trying” attitude that gave glimpses of the Johan Ackermann era.
For their bravery alone this was worth the ticket of admission, but there seems to be something brewing at Emirates Airline Park that is worth watching. Their young talent is bubbling to the surface and they genuinely look to be in good spirits and loving what they are doing.
Whether it is good enough to challenge the top contenders - those already establishing themselves at the top of the table - is another thing and the Dragons, for all their bravado, will struggle to finish outside the bottom four this season on this evidence alone.
But as any Lions fan will know, you have to start somewhere, and the maturity they showed to overcome the red card should be applauded and celebrated.
STORMERS DO THE NECESSARY, JUST NOT IN STYLE
There was always a saying in Super Rugby that sides like the Highlanders liked to “drag you down to their level”. No side ever felt comfortable playing in Dunedin and often there were some really unsightly games.
On Saturday in Stellenbosch that same mantra seemed to apply to Italian side Zebre, who fought the only way they knew how, by dragging the Stormers down to their level.
It’s hard to be too critical of a side that won with a four-try bonus point and with ease in the end, especially when they snapped a losing streak that followed them around Europe on their tour, but John Dobson will be the first to breathe a sigh of relief at the end of that game.
The Stormers showed all the razzle-dazzle that has accompanied them over the past two seasons and their scrum was incredibly strong.
But once again there was too little respect for the ball, too much impatience at the process and it seemed they simply wanted the ball to stick, as at times they threw it around with wild abandon.
Zebre are a side that often take big scores, but this season in particular, they have learnt how to drag teams to their level. A lot of teams know that if you don’t respect the possession and do the hard work, that can often be counter-productive and make it easier for the Italians.
For a large part of the Stellenbosch game, this seemed to be the case, until the dam wall broke and the Stormers eased to their bonus point.
The anxiety may be short-lived though. This Stormers side still have more than enough class to work their way up the league ladder in the coming weeks and a return to DHL Stadium will ease that as well.
Munster, of course, famously lost five of their first six games last season before claiming the title, but Dobson’s men sit with the aura of expectation, and know that while they did the business, they will need to show more of their true Stormers spirit in the coming weeks when the games get tougher.
At this stage though, it seems like a case of the team just needing to click to find their straps, and they have shown more than once that they can do this over a long season.
That’s why criticism of a 31-7 win may feel strange, but the victory is an essential step in the right direction.
CHAMPIONS CUP AWAITS
With the weekend’s results behind them, attention turns to the Champions Cup this week with the Vodacom Bulls showdown with Premiership champions Saracens topping the bill.
With Owen Farrell missing out on their loss to Northampton this past weekend with a knee injury, it seems the England star may not make it to Loftus Versfeld with his team and it will be interesting to see if Saracens pick a full-strength squad for the outing.
The Stormers have a tough gig by heading to Leicester Tigers to face Handre Pollard and Jasper Wiese’s side, fresh off a big win this past weekend and will have their work cut out for them.
Over at the EPCR Challenge Cup, three SA sides will be in action with the Toyota Cheetahs heading for Parma to face Zebre in their first meaningful international game in a long while.
The Sharks return home to face French side Pau on home turf and, given their own headaches, will be hoping the French follow their norm of sending second-string sides for away games.
The Lions head for a Sunday clash with Perpignan, where they may encounter World Cup-winning lock Marvin Orie, who plays for the French side at the moment.
SA Franchises results
Vodacom Bulls 44 Hollywoodbets Sharks 10
Emirates Lions 49 Dragons 24
DHL Stormers 31 Zebre Parma 7
SA sides European fixtures this week
Vodacom Bulls v Saracens (7.30pm)
Leicester Tigers v DHL Stormers (5.15pm)
EPCR Challenge Cup
Zebre Parma v Toyota Cheetahs (3pm)
Hollywoodbets Sharks v Section Paloise (5.15pm)
Perpignan v Emirates Lions (3pm)