Cape Town – Bilateral carnage … that is perhaps the only way
to accurately summarise the three weekend Super Rugby matches which pitted
South African teams against New Zealand ones.
As if confirmation that the once-proud rivalry between the two countries, particularly at Test level, has fizzled out violently in recent times was even needed, we certainly got it in round 11 of the increasingly controversial, lopsided franchise-based competition.
It was a 3-0 sweep for NZ as the Crusaders produced the Saturday cherry on top, spectacularly breaking a nine-year duck for them at Loftus as they humiliated and utterly bamboozled the Bulls 62-24.
The result followed similarly depressing Friday outcomes, where the Hurricanes got the ball rolling by beating the Stormers 41-22 in Wellington and the Highlanders did a veritable Houdini in overcoming the Cheetahs 45-41 in a Bloemfontein rollercoaster ride.
That is collective bragging rights for the New Zealanders of 148 points to 87, with two of the wins coming away from home, but the try count is really more damning and educative: 23 to 10.
Yes, that is an average of more than seven tries conceded between the trio of SA teams, their defences cracked open as if children had been invited to raid the toffee-apple stall at the fair free of charge.
It also meant that NZ sides have now won nine of 10 clashes thus far in 2017 between teams from the two countries, their lone blip being when the Stormers overcame the Chiefs 34-26 on April 8 and, all too briefly, the Capetonians’ world looked close to wonderful with a six-out-of-six record (they have since lost four on the trot).
Having a special field day against outfits from our shores are the overall table-leading Crusaders, who have notched no fewer than 25 tries over the course of respective whippings of the Stormers, Cheetahs and Bulls.
Think about it … 25.
It would be comical if it weren’t so sad.
None of this will be making one of the Springboks’ undisputed heavyweights of an era long gone, Frik du Preez, feel especially better as he recovers – at the time of writing, that was some good news – from a heart attack.
Nor is any likelihood of respite just around the corner: with the Cheetahs visiting the revitalised Blues on Friday off a long-haul flight and the punch-drunk Bulls entertaining the Highlanders, the danger of further bloodshed against SA causes seems very real.
What I found especially revealing about the two SA-staged setbacks against NZ opponents this weekend was that both came in Highveld conditions.
Remember the days when, cautiously anticipating results going in favour of the relevant SA cause, you would hopefully think “the altitude will get to the New Zealanders in the last quarter”?
It is almost as if firm, fast Highveld pitches and the thin air have suddenly, in the past few years, instead become allies rather than impediments to the adventurous, ruthless and highly-skilled sides from the Land of the Long White Cloud, whether at Super Rugby level or the world-leading All Blacks.
On Saturday the Crusaders all too often made the Bulls look leaden, clumsy, sterile and bereft of ideas or structure as they indulged in their 60-plus point riot.
Almost, though not quite, as damning one day earlier was seeing those new masters of the sporting choke, the Cheetahs, somehow contrive to fritter away a 41-24 lead against the Highlanders from as late as the 76th minute.
After being so pleasingly urgent and constructive for so long, Franco Smith’s charges gave a four or five-minute “lesson” in how not to close out a game, with some painfully naïve tactics and hapless defensive charity at the critical business end.
So broadly speaking these are uneasy times, all over again, as the international season draws ever closer for South Africa.
If there is one crumb of comfort for our country in Super Rugby, it is that the Australian challenge remains considerably more dire, and arguably only worsens.
All four Aussie sides in action in the latest round lost, including two defeats to SA foes as the Lions thrashed the Rebels to stay unbeaten on tour – they just underlined that they are far and away the best unit from our shores – and the Sharks were workmanlike more than wonderful in seeing off the Force comfortably enough, but minus a bonus point, in Durban.
There is an enduring, peculiar pattern in the competition this year, regarding the three biggest nations in it: NZ the runaway premier conference, the SA bunch a distant second, and the Aussie group trailing ours by about as wide a margin …
Next weekend’s fixtures (home teams first, all kick-offs SA time):
Friday: Blues v Cheetahs, 09:35; Brumbies v Lions, 11:45. Saturday: Crusaders v Hurricanes, 09:35; Rebels v Reds, 11:45; Bulls v Highlanders, 15:05; Kings v Sharks, 17:15; Jaguares v Force, 23:40. Byes: Stormers, Chiefs, Sunwolves, Waratahs.
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