We saw Leinster host the Ospreys in Dublin for the first ever Grand Final in the Magners League; Leicester v Saracens at Twickenham for the Guinness Premiership; Stad de France saw Clermont-Auvergne play the reigning champions, Perpignon, for the Bouclier d’Or; and in a massive contest in Soweto, the Bulls took on the Stormers, their traditional rivals from Cape Town, in an all-South African Super 14 final.
It’s difficult to imagine that we could have ever before witnessed such a weekend “feast of rugby” - all of the big (provincial) finals for most of the major rugby-playing nations of the world.
All of the games were absorbing and intense and I was especially pleased for Clermont-Auvergne, where our resident Sports Psychologist, Eric Blondeau, has worked – obviously successfully – for the last two years. But surely the biggest and best of them all was played in Soweto; a surprising venue for the traditional Africaans’ game and all the more impressive for that. The Bulls were the reigning champions and favourites, after having convincingly won the minor premiership, but we all sensed that the Stormers were the team who could bring them down. They had easily the best defensive record in the competition and had taken premiership points in all of their matches – no mean feat. In addition, they had a proven match-winner in Bryan Habana.
This was a fantastic game of rugby! I consistently bore my friends from the other football codes with my assertion that, “when rugby is played at its best, to the maximum that the laws allow, there is no other sport that can match it!” This was such a game!
It had extreme pace and power, and these for the full 80 minutes. Both teams were prepared to ‘risk’ enterprise and skill in their efforts to break down quality defences. At the same time, they were well capable of displaying the talent in the more conservative areas of the game. The contests at scrum and lineout were intense and, as if to satisfy even the die-hard ‘purists’, the Bulls’ eventual superiority in these, gave them the win. It’s how it should be, but the game offered a lot more.
I have said many times that quality performance in rugby is ALWAYS based on quality technique, executed under pressure. Indeed, under extreme pressure, only quality technique will survive, so I was delighted to see, from both teams, the most intense defensive pressure – collision forces at unrelenting speed throughout – and, for the most part, no drop-off in standards.
i. the straight running – the Bulls were the better
ii. the accurate passing in front of the receiver – the Stormers’
accuracy fell away toward the end, as they became more anxious
iii. the speed of recycle at the tackle, with an immediate ‘long place’
iv. the accuracy and body-position at the entry into the tackle contest
v. the attack actually ‘attacking’ the defensive line, with a desire to penetrate
it, using footwork, subtlety or power, or a combination – the Stormers
got a bit lateral at times
vi. the quality of support play, which provided continuity over numerous
phases without sacrificing enterprise.
The quality of the attack was matched by
i. the excellent defence, with power and leg-drive ‘through’ the ball-carrier
ii. the exhausting (to the onlooker) realignment of the defenders to
accurately repel repeated assaults – the Stormers got one early
realignment wrong and Hougaard scored of a beautiful pass from
iii. the consistent ‘second-man’ tackle support, which provided numerous
opportunities and some turnovers
The set plays were enthralling. Two great lineouts competing – Andries Becker actually won a couple against the Bulls’ throw, not a common occurrence – lifted the intensity at each and every contest. Two massive scrums, well over 900 kgs for each pack, fought for any morsel of ascendancy, and gradually the Bulls edged ahead. This probably sealed their win.
The kick-off receipts were straight out of the text-book - and legal, which is often not the case. This is not an easy skill; there’s plenty of ‘action’ and many variables. There’s plenty of pressure also, not the least from some chasing giant, hell-bent on the catcher’s scalp!
Both teams had excellent kicking and chasing games, with Bryan Habana surely the best ‘chaser’ ever, and Morne Steyn and Fourie du Preez similarly wonderful kickers.
The goal-kicking also was of the very highest standard. I’m guessing that, statistically, Morne Steyn is way out in front “in the Bradman class”, in kicking for goal.
I simply loved the game. I suppose you’ve guessed that already.
Francois Hougaard was adjudged the man-of-the-match, but I had Fourie du Preez in front. Steyn was equally good, and I was most impressed - for the first time - with Guthro Steencamp. Dewald Potgeiter is a massive, growing force but, in reality, the Bulls had many outstanding players.
For the losers, Joe Pietersen’s performance must give him a great chance of a Springbok cap. Schalk Burger has had his best year ever, but he can still do more to reveal his full (considerable) potential. He obviously assigned himself the task of keeping Pierre Spies under control, and completed the task. Francois Louw built further on his growing reputation. Bryan Habana was great, as usual. I have frequently suggested that a winger’s performance can be judged by how much they accomplish ‘on the other side of the field’. David Campese was fantastic in this regard; Bryan Habana is his equal.
I can’t wait for the internationals to begin. My only misgiving is just how good the Springboks might be.
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