Monday, May 14, 2007

Sharks and Bulls to All-Bok Super 14 Final

I watched both Super 14 semi-finals on Saturday, and I'm pretty sure I wasn't the only one. The South African sporting public, starved for big rugby championships in the professional era, turned out in droves to support the home sides. (And that's not even accounting the ticket mayhem for tens-of-thousands of disappointed fans.)

Sharks beat the Blues 34-18. The Blues took the opening 20 minutes of their game against the Sharks, but couldn't turn the early advantage to points. Whereas, the Sharks got their teeth into the game's second quarter, pulverized the Blues scrummage repeatedly (until Keven Mealamu came on to replace Darrin Whitcombe and stabilize the Blues tight-five), scored on their chances and took a tidy 14-6 lead into the halftime changing shed. The Blues looked wiped. But the Blues owned the wildcard in the form of the Blues young inside-centre Isaia Toeava, who carved up the Sharks defenses with blockbusting runs and awesome offloads early in the 2nd-half to give the Blues an 18-14 lead. Sadly for the Blues, on the second of those two bursting runs Toeava injured his ankle, was taken from the field, all the danger and energy evaporated from the Blues and they never recovered. The Sharks owned the last quarter and were deserved victors.

Digression to Isaia Toeava. The injured Blues back was moved from outside-centre (#13) to replace injured Luke McAlister in the inside-centre (#12) position for this semi-final. The 21-year-old kid was clearly a game-breaker and terrifying to Shark defenders, and appears to be fulfilling the faith All Black coach Graham Henry had in him when he was a shock selection on the AB's end-of-year tour two years ago. "Ice" is the hottest young SANZAR backline star seen since Rupeni Caucaunibuca's awesome seasons in a Blues uniform a few years back. It will be intriguing to see whether Henry gambles with his RWC preparation and selects the youngster into either of the black centre positions. Hard to say what the extent of his ankle injury is, but there's no question he's one of the sports freshest talents.

Back to the Supers...

The 2nd semi-final was a gripping affair despite a dodgy referee and no tries scored. The home-side Bulls were deserving victors 27-12, although the game was closer than the scoreline suggested ~ as with the earlier semi, the result was in the balance for either side at the 70-min marks. What made the game especially difficult to watch was that all 39 points were scored with the boot on penalties and a drop-kick. The South Africans tackled their hearts out all day. The Crusaders looked tired and unimaginative. All-World Dan Carter is still playing at half-speed and appears to be looking ahead to his All Black campaign.

Inky's wrap sounds about right.

And those to whom South Africa have just revealed themselves as a major threat, rest assured. I will continue to sound the alarm against complacency until it's second nature in this country. All this Super 14 season proved about any superiority is that [NZ's] half-empty pool is still deeper than Australia's when full, but not yet deep enough to take any usually knockout-vulnerable African franchises for granted.

So it's Sharks vs. Bulls at Durban next Saturday for the Super 14 final, which guarantees for the first time ever that a team from the Republic will be the SANZAR Super champion.


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