FFS … if you can’t beat Benetton, you can’t beat the Blues. And you most certainly won’t beat the Crusaders. Forget the challenge of Exeter, Munster or Saracens. This was a dark night for the Bulls and South African rugby in Treviso, writes Mark Keohane. But it is the best wake up call for those Springboks in camp preparing for the British & Irish Lions.
Benetton have never made it to a European Heineken Cup final, but at home in Treviso they buried the Bulls and were made to look like the All Blacks in the process. This was a low point in the Bulls rich rugby history.
And I say this because this is a Bulls team that in the last year has won everything in South Africa.
These weren’t Phil Pretorius’s plodders who got smashed by 70 points against the Brumbies in Canberra. These were the Bulls of 2021 who beat the Sharks (twice), the Stormers (twice) and the Lions (once) in six matches in the Rainbow Cup. They are the best team in South Africa, with or without their current Springboks.
These were the Bulls who won Super Rugby Unlocked and won a Currie Cup for the first time in a decade.
That is what makes the result in Treviso on Saturday night such a shock for me.
I had the Bulls to win by 20 points. I laughed at those punters who had the home team at favourites by five points. If the Bulls are hurting tonight, then I have been humbled, and as a punter, humilated.
Knowing what I felt I knew all week, I’d put a 20 point-win bet on the Bulls every day of the week. I wouldn’t put a player from Benetton in the Bulls match 23, but then the lesson learned tonight, even after 30-plus years of writing rugby for a profession, when it comes to finals or play-offs, nothing makes sense and rationale is rubbished.
I witnessed it with Harlequins’ win against Bristol in the English Premiership semi-final and Benetton, in Treviso, were even more emphatic in humbling the Bulls.
The Bulls have been outstanding in South Africa in the past year, but my goodness watching this match reminded me of the Wallabies walloping the Springboks at Newlands in 1992. I was there that day and it hurt. Thank goodness, I had my couch as a comfort watching the bumbling Bulls. The score that day was 26-3 and it was an embarrassment for South African rugby. The score was as one-sided in Treviso, but the embarrassment was no different.
Rugby isolation clearly has inhibited me and it has encouraged a sense of entitlement and delusion.
I really want to think it was the pasta, the pizza and the quality of the social week in Treviso, because it surely couldn’t have been the water or the quality of Benetton’s players.
But thinking that would be an insult to 23 brave Benetton players, among them a handful of South Africans, who created history because this is the finest moment in Benetton’s history.
For those South Africans not familiar with Benetton, formerly Treviso, this is it.
Treviso finished their first two seasons in the Pro12 (2010–11 and 2011–12) in 10th place, while in the 2012–13 season they finished 7th with 50 points. In the next three seasons, Treviso performed poorly, ending 11th, 11th and 12th out of twelve teams. After that, a new head coach was engaged for the 2016/2017 season, the New Zealander Kieran Crowley. The former All Black formed a new coaching team with two ex-Italian internationals, Marco Bortolami and Fabio Ongaro. Treviso finished the season in 10th place.
In 2017/2018, the championship was joined by two South Africans teams, becoming the Pro14, and was divided into two conferences. This season Treviso nearly reached the European Rugby Champions Cup play-offs, ending 5th in the conference with 55 points. For first time since Treviso joined this league the club has been able to record more wins than losses (11 against 10).
And on Saturday, in Treviso, a team who had qualified courtesy of two wins against Zebre, one each against Glasgow and Connacht, absolutely butchered the Bulls, the provincial pride of South African rugby.