At the beginning of August, anyone trying to second-guess the final log positions in the Currie Cup would have probably worked from the bottom up.
The first assumption would have been that the five elite unions would finish above the Pumas, Griquas and EP Kings. It duly happened.
The next, far trickier, move would have been to rank the others from five to one. The Cheetahs battled in Super Rugby and would have been favourites to miss out on the semi-finals. It duly happened.
These are dark days in Bloemfontein. The Cheetahs punched above their weight by reaching the play-offs of Super Rugby in 2013 but it could not be sustained in 2014. The union’s captain and best player, Adriaan Strauss, has signed for the Bulls in 2015 amid rumours that he does not care for alleged financial impropriety in the Cheetahs’ boardroom.
And so we come to the four sides who succeeded in reaching the semis: Western Province, the Golden Lions, the Sharks and the Bulls, in that order. Would anyone have got that prediction right by any manner other than tossing coins or drawing straws?
And would the same pundit have been confident of his predictions after the Bulls had lost four of their opening six games, while the Pumas won three of their first four?
The Stormers battled in Super Rugby but WP won the log section of the Currie Cup with a match to spare. This either means that they have found a lot of new talent or that the competition is not as strong as it has been in the past. It is probably fair to say that the answer is a bit of both.
There are plenty of nuggets for coach Allister Coetzee to get excited about. The Sevens stars – Cheslin Kolbe, Seabelo Senatla and Justin Geduld – add a cutting edge to a backline that is the envy of most unions. Jean Kleyn is a massive presence at lock, Nizaam Carr equally so in the back row and hooker Scarra Ntubeni has a bright future in the game. But the union is still desperately searching for a quality halfback combination.
The Sharks were expected to finish in the top two. They made the play-offs in Super Rugby after all, the only South African side to do so.
But Springbok call-ups and an unseemly rush by a number of stalwarts to play overseas meant that coach Brad Macleod-Henderson had to start his team from scratch for the Currie Cup.
It took time for combinations to settle, the nadir coming against the Griquas at Kings Park in early September. The 21-18 home defeat came in the middle of a three-week winless streak, in which they also lost to the Pumas in Nelspruit and then drew 30-30 with the Cheetahs.
A marked improvement came thereafter, but an insipid 28-20 win over the WP second team in Cape Town last week suggests they have hit the glass ceiling.
To progress further, the Sharks will have to beat the Lions at Ellis Park this week. That looks a bridge too far, for Johan Ackermann’s side seems to have hit its stride at precisely the right moment.
The manner in which the Lions disposed of the Cheetahs in a 47-7 drubbing brooked no argument. For the second week in a row, the Ellis Park faithful got to watch a side committed to creative rugby.
Chin in the air
Those who believe that a coach cannot change the habits of a lifetime might care to dwell on Derick Minnie. He is known for his ability to regain possession of the ball at the bottom of rucks and for “hitting it up”, that hoary old euphemism that involves tucking the ball under your arm and finding the nearest opponent to run into.
Minnie’s gallop to the try line in the 10th minute was so out of character that it had observers checking the programme to see if they had missed a late team change. He got the ball 40m out, ran into space with his chin in the air and then sidestepped the fullback on his way to score. If this is the future trend of South African rugby, bring it on!
If the Sharks are on a hiding to nothing, the Bulls have an outside chance of creating the upset that would give the Lions a home final. They have a chance for one reason and that reason’s name is Handré Pollard.
It may be that the 20-year-old Springbok flyhalf has peaked way too early and cannot maintain the standards he has set but that’s not the way to bet.
Pollard’s introduction in the final quarter of the Bulls’ game with the Griquas last week suggests he is one of those rare players who arrives fully formed in senior rugby. What marks him out is his decision-making and the ability to read the game in front of him, rather than the coach’s notes on the blackboard in the dressing room.
A try under the posts – a replica of the one against the All Blacks – and an outrageous chip into space to create a try for Akona Ndungane were the highlights, but he was just a pleasure to watch, refusing to be drawn into the contact points and running the game in a way that Bulls fans have not seen since Naas Botha hung up his boots.