Bulls defeat leaves fans smarting

2008-03-22 00:00

SEVEN days have passed, but the wounds are still raw and the pain remains acute.

“Please explain something to me,” the Oom asks, unable to conceal his confusion and despair.

“How is it possible that a Super 14 champion team missing only two players can play like that?”

Hardly pausing for breath, he continues: “How is it possible that we can lose 40-8 to a team that we beat 92-3 last year? That is a 121-point swing in the space of 12 months. Naas said on television it was the worst Bulls performance he has ever seen, and I agree with him.”

As he speaks, he bows his head and starts to play with the chips on his plate, absent-mindedly using his fork to push them first this way and then that way. The man is clearly in distress.

There are two possible explanations for the unfolding catastrophe of the Bulls’ defence of their Super 14 title, which reached its nadir — the City of Tshwane hopes — with the mind-numbing defeat to the Reds in Brisbane last weekend and may yet have been partially revived by victory over the Chiefs early this morning.

“Klapped by the Reds,” the Oom sighs. “Really, how is that possible?”

Around the table, nobody says a word. In Durban and Port Elizabeth, sporting disappointments can effectively be soothed by a visit to a beautiful beach; in Cape Town, there is usually a glass of wine at hand; in Jo’burg, there’s often another deal to be done and more bucks to be made; in Bloemfontein, there are now no fewer than three excellent Spur restaurants for all the family to enjoy; and yet in Pretoria, it seems, there is no escape from the agony.

With the chips going cold, a consensus gradually emerges that Frans Ludeke is to blame. A surprise choice to succeed the trophy-laden Heyneke Meyer as coach, Ludeke is by all accounts a deeply religious and decent man, but his coaching record is underwhelming and it’s not getting better. In professional rugby, while the blazered officials seem to remain forever, employee coaches stand or fall by their results.

“Watching the debacle against the Reds,” the Oom says, “the thought occurred to me that the players could actually be playing to get the coach sacked ASAP. Could that be possible?”

Another beleaguered Bulls fan disagrees: “You can’t just blame the coach. The players must take their share of the responsibility. These guys won the Super 14, then many of them won the World Cup; since then, they have spent most of their time flirting with French rugby clubs, which, I can tell you, is not nearly as much fun as flirting with French women, and checking the latest Rand-Euro exchange rate. This is a classic case of sportsmen getting big-headed, focusing on money instead of the game, and coming up short.”

The debate continues, but it’s not the first painful post-mortem in Pretoria.

It is now 20 years since Northern Transvaal, then perennial Currie Cup champions, travelled to play Natal at Kings Park and suffered an equally staggering 62-6 defeat. They called it the “Mazda” game, because the Mazda 626 was a popular car at the time, but nobody was laughing.

The following Monday evening at Loftus Versfeld, the chastened Northerns players arrived for training to find at least 4 000 people had gathered in the lower tier of the main grandstand, quietly drifting in from their offices at the end of the working day. Nobody was shouting or performing. Amid furrowed brows and hushed voices, it was as if at least 4 000 members of the extended Blue Bull family had felt a deep inner need to be wake, to attend this wake, to show solidarity in crisis, to share the pain and discuss the recovery.

I remember seeing Oom Hansie Brewis, rugby icon of the 1950s, sitting in the stand, surrounded by more than 60 people listening to him explain what he thought had gone wrong in Durban.

History records that Natal visited Loftus a month later and were beaten by 50 points. In a city where rugby means so much to so many people, the Blue Bulls very rarely stay down for long.

•Edward Griffiths is a journalist, author and former CEO of SA Rugby. www.onesmallvoice.co.za

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