In for a scalping
With only a month of action left there are really no surprises in the make up of the Super 12 log. That’s unless you count the fact that the four South African sides have won seven games away from home, three of them in New Zealand.
That was supposed to be the hard lesson our franchises needed to learn this year, but it seems to have been achieved without regard for the sanctity of home-ground advantage.
The Sharks managed one win out of four at ABSA Stadium; the Cats won two out of three at Ellis Park and none out of three in Bloemfontein. The Bulls beat the Cats in Bloemfontein
in the first round and then beat the Hurricanes in Napier the following week. They have not won since and have now lost their first two games in a five-week engagement at Loftus.
No problem, we said. The Stormers have five games in a row at Newlands and with successive wins over the Waratahs in Sydney and the Bulls in Pretoria, they are clearly peaking at the right time. How wrong we were.
South African sides have given some fairly rotten performances in this competition down the years. The Cat’s 64-0 drubbing by the Brumbies at Bruce stadium on April Fool’s Day three years ago comes to mind. But they were away from home and the Brumbies were a wonderful side who only lost in the final.
Then there was 2002 when the Bulls became the first side ever to go through the tournament without a win, surrendering an average of 45 points a match. But it was acknowledged that the Bulls were a rabble.
The Stormers are not a rabble. Yet they have had a shocking injury list and, the Waratahs game apart, did little of note in Australasia, but at Newlands they are supposed to be a cut above.
Ten minutes before the final whistle in the match against the Reds last Saturday, the bucket seats were tipping up with regular thwacks as the patrons headed for home.
Coach Gert Smal was as mystified as the men and women wearing long faces and replica jerseys.
‘We somehow struggled to find any rhythm for most of the game,” said Smal. ‘We let ourselves down with some aimless play in our own half and we put undue pressure on ourselves by not finding touch with penalties and kicks from open play.”
The old mantra, ‘we didn’t do the basics”, fitted perfectly. Altogether 14 players against 15 for 50 of the 80 minutes, it nevertheless seemed to be the Reds who were constantly creating overlaps, while the Stormers threw passes into the stands, knocked on high balls and came in from the wrong side of almost every ruck.
Given the way that the Blues played against the Bulls with 15 men at Loftus, one trembles at the prospect of the log leaders’ visit to Newlands this week. The Blues grasped the simple idea that the way to beat a team with a good scrum is to make sure that the ball never goes dead.
With the majestic Carlos Spencer in command at flyhalf, the Aucklanders played a game with which the Bulls seemed unfamiliar.
It was like 15 chess grandmasters against a team of draughts players. You should never judge a team’s worth by comparing it with the best in the business, but those who cautioned against over optimism after the Bulls won their first two matches may have been right. There’s still a lot wrong in the state of Pretoria.
It would be tempting to say that the opposite may be true of the Sharks —some unkind things have been said of the team recently — but that would be ignoring the facts. They played well to beat the Cats at Ellis Park, but could afford to play badly and still beat the woeful Chiefs in Hamilton last Friday.
The Chiefs had shaved their heads en masse during the week to raise money for charity — an act that probably saved them from a scalping this week by coach Kevin Greene. If there is such a thing as an Honourable Society of Barbers in Rotorua they may picket the ground this week when the Cats visit.
In addition to the money lost to the Society while the Chiefs grow their hair back, they may want to get as close as possible to Bob Skinstad to see just how bad his haircut really looks.
David Beckham can get away with bad topiary because his standard of play rarely falters, but the mighty Skinstad of the Highlanders game was nowhere to be seen in Christchurch last week.
It might seem churlish to criticise a man’s play by taking on his hairstyle, but it is merely an echo of the word on the street.
Then again, with South Africa’s Super 12 dreams in tatters for another year, perhaps Bob’s Mohican is as good a topic as any, and better than most.