The Western Force kept the pressure on the Brumbies and the Waratahs with a gutsy 23-16 win against the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein.
Following five losses in a row in South Africa in recent times, the Westerners proved they are the real deal by holding on in an intriguing match.
After watching a choking game to the death in the wet between the Brumbies and the Sharks in Canberra, seeing two teams moving the ball around on a dry pitch was like a breath of fresh air.
A couple of penalty goals were swapped as the Cheetahs were playing hot potato rugby and the Force responded. Once the Force got over the line for a good try—no they didn’t: it was accidental offfside 40 metres back said the TMO.
Nick Cummins – got mauled, and got meat
But the Force won the Cheetahs’ scrum and were back at the try-line again as Honey Badger got mauled over. Scrum. Then they took a penalty goal for the home team not releasing, to make the score 6-3 at 20 minutes.
Not long after the restart there was some lovely rugby theatre from the Force. Matt Hodgson turned the Cheetahs’ ball over in his own 22, charged up the field like a bullock and passed to galloping Jayden Hayward; thence the ball went to eager Marcel Brache; next to the admirable Nathan Charles (who got ball and tackler) then it was popped up to the tracking Hayward, who scored in the corner.
What a try, and after the wide conversion by Sias Ebersohn the score was 13-3 Force at 25 minutes.
The Force was causing a bit of cheek at scrum time and were getting the better of the orange lads at the breakdown, being all over the ball like fleas on a dog.
The Cheetahs had two charges at the Force goal-line before half-time and the visitors had one opportunity at the other end. No tries were scored but they earned a penalty goal apiece to make the score 16-6 to the Force at half-time.
Adriaan Strauss – a human dynamo
Soon after the break the Cheetahs got back in the game. The Force fluffed a lineout throw five metres out from their own line and soon Matt Hodgson got a well-deserved yellow card for being a pest defending his patch. The Cheetahs rumbled over not long after and when Goosen converted the Force were still ahead, but by only 16-13.
Then came a long period of forcings back which had the crowd booing, until Hayward intercepted a pass and charged up the right hand side of the field before dishing off to Brache, which shut them up. When the ball was switched to the left Nick Cummins scored. Meat for the Badger !!
Ebersohn got the ball over the crossbar after it had pin-balled off both posts, and the Force was ahead by ten points again – 23-13.
After Goosen slotted a penalty at 56 minutes to make the score 23-16 to the Force, there was a period of attrition as the Cheetahs threw everything they had at the visitors.
Matt Hodgson – a pest but also Man of the Match
There were nine minutes left when THP Coenie Oosthuizen appeared to score for the Cheetahs by grounding the ball near the padding of the post, but the TMO spotted the ball rolling forward under his wrist before the line and refused the try.
With five minutes remaining the Cheetahs drove from a lineout not far out, but the Force held them up. They earned a five metre scrum and held on to win 23-16.
It was a close-run thing but the Force won because they took the chances they were given by working off the ball. Their defence was also telling because they held up the attackers heroically, as they had the Waratahs a few weeks earlier.
The Cheetahs could not hold onto the pill long enough to make their opportunities count; nor, in their own rucks, could they clean out the visitors well enough to avoid turnovers.
The Game Changer
At 75 minutes, with the score 23-16, the Cheetahs had a lineout close to the Force goal-line but the Force closed around the maul, earned a scrum and got out of danger.
The G&GR MOTM
Adriaan Strauss was a dynamo for the Cheetahs and was well supported by openside flanker Heinrich Brüssow and eighthman Boom Prinsloo.
In different ways locks Sam Wykes and Adam Coleman were influential for the Force, as was flyhalf Sias Ebersohn, who slotted all his goals. But despite a couple of bonehead penalties against him the G&GR MOtM was skipper Matt Hodgson.
Lock Adam Coleman, who scrummages on the right hand side of the scrum, may not be in Ewen McKenzie’s immediate plans, but he will be penciled in for later attention if he keeps playing his tough game.
Score & Scorers
Tries: Jayden Hayward, Nick Cummins
Conversions: Sias Ebersohn (2);
Penalties: Ebersohn (3)
Try: Boom Prinsloo
Conversion: Johan Goosen
Penalties: Goosen (3)
Cards & Citings
Matt Hodgson – Yellow card (hands in ruck – red zone)
Force: 1. Pek Cowan, 2. Nathan Charles 3. Kieran Longbottom, 4. Adam Coleman, 5. Sam Wykes, 6. Angus Cottrell, 7. Matt Hodgson (c), 8. Ben McCalman, 9. Ian Prior, 10. Sias Ebersohn, 11. Nick Cummins, 12. Kyle Godwin, 13. Marcel Brache, 14. Dane Haylett-Petty, 15. Jayden Hayward.
Reserves: 16. Heath Tessmann, 17. Tetera Faulkner, 18. Ollie Hoskins, 19. Wilhelm Steenkamp, 20. Brynard Stander, 21. Justin Turner, 22. Zack Holmes, 23. Chris Tuatara-Morrison.
Cheetahs: 1. Caylib Oosthuizen, 2. Adriaan Strauss, 3. Coenie Oosthuizen, 4. Waltie Vermeulen, 5. Francois Uys, 6. Heinrich Brüssow, 7. Teboho Mohoje, 8. Boom Prinsloo, 9. Sarel Pretorius, 10. Johan Goosen, 11. Willie le Roux, 12. Rayno Benjamin, 13. Johann Sadie, 14. Raymond Rhule, 15. Hennie Daniller.
Reserves: 16. Torsten van Jaarsveld, 17. Trevor Nyakane, 18. Maks van Dyk, 19. Willem Serfontein, 20. Carel Greeff, 21. Shaun Venter, 22. Elgar Watts, 23. Cornal Hendricks.
Date: Saturday 10 May
Venue: Free State Stadium, Bloemfontein
Kick Off local: 17:05
Referee: Chris Pollock (NZ)
Assistant Referees: Marius Jonker (RSA) and Francois de Bruin (RSA)
Television Match Official: Shaun Veldsman (RSA)
DO NOT PUBLISH
The Bulls are the only South African team to have won any version of Super Rugby. They were in the final three times in four seasons during a golden period from 2007 to 2010—and they won all of three of them.
Their fans will want to get back to those good old days and this year should see a step up in class.
The Bulls are located on the Highveld in Gauteng Province. It’s at an altitude of 1,340 metres above sea level – about the same as Thredbo Village in the Snowy Mountains. Gauteng is about half as big again as the area of Greater Sydney area but has about 13 million people.
The province has several provincial unions including the Lions whose ground at Ellis Park Stadium in Johannesburg is only about an hour’s drive from the Bulls’ home ground of Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria. (Add the ground sponsor’s name in if you like.)
Pretoria is a University city and the executive branch of the Republic of South Africa is based there. It has a population of 700,000. Sounds a bit like Canberra, doesn’t it?
Wiki advises that languages spoken in Pretoria include 48% Afrikaans and 16% English. The Bulls also cover the huge north-west province of Limpopo (Wiki ref: 97% black African). The Bulls are a well-established union that stretches out into more remote areas of indigenous population.
Head Coach Nollis Marais with skipper Adriaan Strauss last year
Is 10-man rugby a thing of the past?
The altitude on the Highveld lends itself to rugby that features the set piece, kicking, penalties and wearing out an opposition inevitably suffering from oxygen deprivation. 10-man rugby is a logical strategy at Loftus. It is steeped in their traditions as though harking back to the old days when the Vortreekkers were circling their wagons for defence at night on their long journey north.
But it’s changing!
The Bulls have shown remarkable confidence in their coaching pathways. Head Coach Nollis Marais started with local varsity teams, Under 21 and then the Currie Cup. He had reasonable success with the trophy cabinet also. 2016 was his first year in Super Rugby where he brought a mandate for ball-in-hand rugby. Yes – it’s a work in progress.
Pre-season training in 2017 has focussed on conditioning (no need for altitude training rooms here), broken field play and quick ball. Marais has a close eye on the Kiwis who they meet in the Super Rugby draw for 2017.
Lood de Jager – playing for the Bulls this year
The flavour of the team feels much like 2016 but there has been a lot of movement.
African squad tends to be huge in pre-season where Under 19, Under 21 and Currie Cup squads are merged. In this broader group, some 26 youngsters are listed as making it from the Bulls’ Academy and the Blue Bulls (the domestic Currie Cup organisation).
Key losses include: van der Merwe (France), Hattingh (Japan), Herbst (to the Kings for pity’s sake), Janse van Rensburg (France), Orie (Lions), Labuschagne (Japan), Kriel (Stormers), SP Marais (Stormers). Some of those losses hurt.
New signings are Jacobie Adriaanse (Kings), Conraad van Vuuren (Cheetahs – Currie Cup), Edgar Marutlulle (Kings), Shaun Adendorff (Boland – Currie Cup), John Kotze (Stormers), Sibhale Maxwane (Western Province/Stormers – Currie Cup). And of course the high profile Lood de Jager (Cheetahs) – easing some of that pain!
Hooker Adriaan Strauss may miss the early season with injury. Jacques Potgieter has returned from injury as has Springbok Handre Pollard (finally!) who is said to be fit and sharp. The Bulls should step forward with the experienced playmaker working the “play what is in front of you” theme.
Strauss and Pollard will share the captaincy but note that former Springbok Under 20 captain Hanro Leibenberg has also stepped into the leadership role in the pre-season trials.
Handre Pollard will be back in action in 2017
- Home ground altitude advantage.
- Players to watch: Handre Pollard (flyhalf), RG Snyman and Lood de Jager (future Bok locking partnership?), and the dreadlockedLuther Obi has been looking scintilating.
- The team is tight – Marais has sculpted the group for a very long time.
- The Bulls are still a young team.
- Changing style takes time for things to truly gel. The Bulls performance was sporadic last year.
- Travel distances.
In spite of the emphasis on free-flowing rugby, the Bulls will do well to take their defence from the Currie Cup into Super Rugby this season. The set piece must continue to demand respect.
Marais has said: “Our aim is 2018 but if we win this year, then why shouldn’t we give it a shot? But the play-offs have to be made.”
The Bulls are in the Africa 1 Conference and they play all the Kiwis teams this year. The Bulls need to win the Conference because wildcard status will likely be earned by the second-placed team from the Africa 2 conference, because they play against the easier Australian teams in 2017.
It’s not as big an ask as it sounds. It’s like the old joke when two hikers meet a huge grizzly bear on a path and one takes his training shoes out of the knapsack and puts them on. When the other guy says he’s crazy because he will never be able to outrun the bear, the first guy says: “I just have to beat you.”
The Bulls just have to beat the Stormers.
Beat those Stormers !!
The Bulls have one home game in the first seven weeks. Early away games include a must-win fixture against the Stormers (away) in Round 1, and then a New Zealand tour; so the Bulls may be slow out of the box. Marais has a massive job to keep up team morale until they settle into their home games.
There is a fascinating final round – the Stormers at home. The conference winners could easily be determined in that match.
The Bulls were clearly behind the Stormers in the Africa 1 Conference last year and they got pipped by the Sharks for the Wildcard spot even though the Bulls played the Aussies sides and the Sharks, the Kiwis. They completed the season being runner’s up in the Currie Cup, which is often a good indicator of form going forward at the higher level.
A trial against the Lions in Zimbabwe was not very useful as a form indicator since the Lions played many youngsters, though they won comfortably. Last weekend they were pleased about making the quarter -finals of the Brisbane Tens at Ballymore. The Bulls stuck to their set piece but gradually opened up during the competition.
By all accounts they enjoyed the experience and returned to Africa buoyant.
I’m calling for the Bulls to start slow, finish fast and top the Africa 1 conference ahead of the Stormers. That should please Nollis Marais and the fans who will both realise that it’s only a first step and that the experience of finals footie will help them peak in 2018..
Africa 1 Conference – 1st and automatic quarter-finalist *
* Overall position ignored, as being irrelevant.