I want the Bulls to beat the Sharks in Durban on Saturday and qualify for the Rainbow Cup final, writes Mark Keohane. And it has nothing to do with the Sharks and everything to do with South African rugby.
The Bulls are South Africa’s best chance of winning the final, to be played in Treviso, Italy on 19th June, and South African rugby would be the winner if the Sharks hoisted the white flag on Saturday.
The fact that they have included their two Springbok squad props Thomas du Toit and Ox Nche, when they were supposed to be rested according to the national squad agreement, is an indication they won’t be doing the Bulls any favours.
The word is the Sharks say they have no option, but if that is the case, it makes a mockery of any agreement between national and regional in the future. Every regional team in the future could claim a lack of options.
Either a region and national system works in tandem or they don’t. It can’t be a case of what works for one or the other. National interests are put first because of the Springboks. If not, don’t agree to such a scenario.
Benetton will host the inaugural Rainbow Cup final and one of the Bulls or Sharks will represent South Africa. The form guide says the table-topping Bulls, but the South African derbies played during the Covid Pandemic in front of no crowds has seen very little separate the four South African Pro Rugby franchises.
There was the Sharks blowout against the Bulls at Loftus, when the hosts scored 31 unanswered points to win 43-9, but for the most less than a converted try has stood between euphoria and despair.
The national coach Jacques Nienaber and SA Rugby’s National Director of Rugby Rassie Erasmus would ideally want the Sharks to rest their Springboks, ensuring they get on the plane to Bloemfontein this weekend in one piece. It hasn’t happened.
The Bulls wouldn’t object to this either because the biggest national risk at this juncture is more injuries to those leading players selected for the Springboks two tests against Georgia and three-Test series against the British & Irish Lions.
The Springboks lost influential powerhouse No 8 Duane Vermeulen to injury in the brutal showdown between the Bulls and Stormers at Loftus last weekend, ironically in a tackle made by the 2019 World Player of the Year Pieter-Steph du Toit. There was nothing wrong with the tackle and everything wrong with the way Vermeulen’s ankle twisted in the tackle. He is expected to miss all five Test matches and the best prognosis, following surgery, is that he is fit to play in the Rugby Championship, which starts a week after the 7th August third and final Test against the Lions.
The Sharks players selected for the Springboks are: Fullback Aphelele Fassi, wingers Makazole Mapimpi, Sbu Nkosi, Yaw Penxe, centre Lukhanyo Am, scrumhalf Sanele Nohamba, flanker Siya Kolisi and props Thomas du Toit and Ox Nche.
The Sharks, at full-strength are a powerful unit, but denied the services of nine first choice players and factoring in those already on the injured list, the odds would be stacked against them beating Benetton.
The Bulls, by contrast, will lose four players to the national set-up and White has replacements who have played well when called on in the past year.
The Bulls, given the strength of their squad, would be favourites to beat Benetton and secure the country another international trophy in the first match played outside of South Africa post the Covid lockdown.
A win for the Bulls on Saturday would be an all-win situation for South African rugby and a win the following week in the final in Italy would be an emotional boost for rugby in this country.
The Sharks, given their competitiveness, are likely to do everything possible to score a bonus-point win against the Bulls and deny the visitors a bonus point in Durban. It is a huge ask, given that the Bulls have in the last year won Super Rugby Unlocked and a first Currie Cup in 10 years.
A Sharks victory at home would not be a shock because the Sharks did beat the Bulls in Durban in the Currie Cup league stages, but it would need a major implosion by the Bulls to lose heavily in Durban.
The permutations for the Bulls include just having to get a losing bonus point or a try-scoring bonus point for four tries. That is all they would need to qualify for the final. The points differential won’t come into play, with the Bulls currently 50-plus points to the good.
So, here’s wishing for a Bulls win in the most charitable of way and it has nothing to do with having anything against the Sharks, but more in wanting to make sure those nine Springbok-bound Sharks, especially the captain and vice-captain don’t risk injury.
*Benetton are captained by former Stormers scrumhalf Dewaldt Duvenage and have South African-born players in hooker Corniel Els, locks Irne Herbst and Eli Snyman and loose forward Braam Steyn. Italian flyhalf Tommaso Allan is a former Western Province u18 player, having attended Bishops, and is the nephew of former Springbok and Scotland hooker John Allan.
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