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Bulls’ win a boost for South Africa

The Bulls may have provided a foretaste of the international season ahead when they beat New Zealand’s Waikato Chiefs 61-17 on Saturday to claim their second Super 14 rugby title.

When the Bulls last won the title in 2007, by beating the Sharks, their success ushered a season of South African dominance in Test rugby crowned by the Springboks’ victory at that year’s World Cup in France.

The conspicuous roles of many Springboks players in Saturday’s record-breaking win at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria may stand as a warning to the British and Irish Lions of the magnitude of their task when they meet South Africa in three Tests in June and July.

The Lions, already depleted by injuries and indicative of the current weakness of Northern Hemisphere rugby, opened their tour of South Africa on Saturday with an unconvincing 37-25 win over a composite side.

At almost the same time, South Africa clinched overall victory in the IRB Sevens series at the last stop of the season in Edinburgh, further stressing the depth and strength of South African rugby. New Zealand teams have won 10 Super 12 or 14 championships and, concurrently, eight world sevens crowns; achievements which have generally translated into test series success in those seasons.

New Zealand’s Super 14 wins have generally been followed by victory in the Tri-Nations series and other Test matches; notably in 2005 when the Canterbury Crusaders won the Super 14, and the All
Blacks won the Tri-Nations and swept the Lions in three Tests.

South Africa now seems in a position to use the Bulls’ outstanding season as a springboard to success this season, against the Lions and in the Tri-Nations series.

Fourie du Preez, Bryan Habana, Victor Matfield, Wynand Olivier and Pierre Spies, who were among the Bulls tryscorers on Saturday, are likely to be key members of the Springboks team that meets the Lions.

The Bulls were, by far, the best and most consistent team in this year’s Super 14, winning 11 of their 14 matches and maintaining an unbeaten record at home. Criticised in the past for unambitious of play, they developed a much more expansive style which exploited the talents of winger Habana and centre Olivier.

A pack led by Matfield and Springboks locking partner Bakkies Botha provided the Bulls with an outstanding platform in set pieces, while number eight Spies was superb in the loose, punching the
ball through midfield to create space for Habana.

The Bulls had the second best attacking record of the regular season, and the seventh best record on defence. They were able to play seven of their last eight regular season matches at Pretoria, where they enjoyed the Super 14’s most emphatic home advantage.

In the last two weeks they beat the Canterbury Crusaders, who they deposed as Super 14 champions, then the Chiefs, who were playing a final for the first time.

”The last two weeks have been the best two weeks of my life,” Matfield said.

”We started working for this in November. It showed that if you work hard you’ll get the result on the field. We had no injuries in the last few weeks and that helped.”

Double tryscorer Habana praised the Bulls’ team unity.

”We have a very special group of players. It’s amazing to be part of an unbelievable team and we have laid the foundations for future generations of this team,” he said.

”We knew the Chiefs would come at us and they scored that first try, but we knew if we could keep our composure things would come good.”

The Chiefs had their best season, setting aside their record as the worst-performed of New Zealand’s five franchises. They reached the semifinals for only the second time in 14 years and hosted a semifinal for the first time, beating the Wellington Hurricanes 14-10.

The final, in front of 50 000 raucous Bulls supporters at Loftus Versfeld, proved a step too far.

”We weren’t allowed to play by the Bulls,” captain Mils Muliaina said.

”That was a world class performance and well done to them. They thoroughly deserved their win and title.”

The Bulls gave South Africa their second Super 14 title but were markedly stronger than their compatriots. The Sharks pressed for a semifinal place until the last week of the regular season, but were ultimately denied by the Bulls. The Lions and Cheetahs were both uncompetitive.

New Zealand provided three semifinalists, emphasising its continued strength. The fact the Chiefs were so severely outclassed on Saturday may have concerned the New Zealand selectors who named their first squad of the season on Sunday.

Australia was left with more cause for concern after failing for the third time in 14 years to qualify a team for the final four.

The ACT Brumbies and New South Wales Waratahs came closest, but were both eliminated in the last regular season round. The Force performed moderately while the Queensland Reds finished 13th of 14 teams. – Sapa-AP

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