Cape Town - Getting what was needed in terms of log points to top the log was one objective for Western Province against the Blue Bulls at the weekend, but there was another - to strike an important psychological blow ahead of a likely return meeting between the teams in a semi-final.
WP returned to Cape Town feeling that it was very much a case of mission accomplished. Their 34-7 win in a rain-shortened game gave them pole position on the log which means a home final for them if they win their semi-final, and the Bulls should be carrying plenty of mental scars as they head to Newlands for the one that really matters this coming weekend.
However, Dobson is also probably all too aware that all the pressure is now on his team. A home game at Newlands, against a team they thumped on their home patch seven days earlier - what could go wrong?
Well, funny things do happen in the Currie Cup, and the stage could be set for the biggest upset in a semi-final since Wynand Claassen’s B Section Natal side knocked over Free State 26-15 at Kings Park in 1984. Natal had been thumped in a promotion relegation game against Northern Free State in Welkom the week before, and like the Bulls now, they had nothing to lose...
When a coach starts talking about complacency, you know he has accepted the favourites tag, but there again, how could he not after the margin of victory on the Bulls’ home paddock? What Dobson is right about though is that he can’t expect the Bulls to make the same mistakes in dry conditions that they did in the wet, and provided we don’t see a repeat of the freaky conditions that prevailed when WP thumped the Cheetahs earlier in the season, Saturday’s should be a completely different game.
“We are completely aware that the conditions favoured us, and some of those (Bulls players) made a few mistakes. We gained our territory largely off the Bulls’ wet-weather mistakes. It won’t be as easy as that next week,” Dobson told SuperSport.com.
At the same time though, what won Province the Loftus battle, namely forward power and good tactical acumen, is just part of the WP strength. As he hinted in a television interview after the game, the approach will be different at Newlands (provided it is dry). He said that his team will go back to their usual template, which is based on giving freedom to the team’s many X-factor players.
Dillyn Leyds, who ended up missing the Loftus game, is one of those, so is Damian Willemse, who ended up starting at fullback. If Leyds is ready to play at Newlands, Dobson faces an interesting dilemma, as Josh Stander, when asked to step in as the starting flyhalf, was again outstanding and arguably deserves a run in a semi-final as a preparation for a possible role in next year’s Super Rugby.
Right now though it is the Bulls who have most of the thinking to do, and some hard work ahead of them this week. They will know they never showed WP their full capabilities, but then they will also know that the same could probably be said of Province. The psychological blow delivered by WP was an emphatic one.
“What we wanted to do was to come here and make it seem very daunting for the Bulls to come to us next week,” said Dobson.
“Captain Chris van Zyl’s talk this week was to make a statement so that they will have a lot of doubt coming down for the semi-final. Maybe some of our play today could have created that. This a special group and they are definitely not going to be complacent for they are completely well aware that the conditions favoured us.
“The big win we scored over what was effectively the Cheetahs PRO14 side earlier in the competition prepared us for this game. The conditions in that game were not better than what we experienced here.”
What Dobson had no doubt about was that the Loftus performance was an exceptional one from his charges.
“We are absolutely thrilled because with those conditions we knew we had to get four tries and to do it before half-time was exceptional. When the message came that we might only get a half in, you can ask the players to play with massive intensity and do damage and I think they responded incredibly. I thought it was a really exceptional performance from us.”
Maybe at the same time, given how Dobson asked for extra intensity in a shortened game, Loftus was a microcosm of the WP season so far and offered an indication of why they have been so much better this year than they were in 2017. They did win the Currie Cup last year, but they only really seemed to switch on for the final league game against the Sharks and then the playoffs.
This year there were only six games due to the decision to cut the league phase to a single round and thus fewer matches that the players might have felt were meaningless. Perhaps the WP performances in the Currie Cup are an advance for the argument that less is more.
At the same time though, as Dobson will no doubt be telling his players on Monday, the season is not yet over, and WP haven’t won anything yet. They have made it easier for themselves by securing home ground advantage from here on, but in 2013 WP lost a home final to the Sharks everyone expected them to win…
They won’t want a repeat.