Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – “General Botha” was less than impressed with the tactical ploys of his beloved former troops.
Only this, of course, had nothing to do with Boer War combat in a time gone by.
From his position as a regular pundit in the SuperSport studio on Saturday, Bulls and Springbok flyhalf legend Naas Botha lamented highly controversial decision-making by the home camp in the final quarter of their failed Super Rugby semi-final against the Brumbies at Loftus.
Unsurprisingly, the one-time points machine reserved his main incredulity for captain Dewald Potgieter’s decision (assuming there were no other “cooks”, either on or off the park, centrally involved) to spurn a volley of opportunities to bank three points via kickable penalties.
The Bulls, belatedly but commendably having discovered a real head of steam, had grabbed the lead in the nail-biter for the first time on the hour mark, as Morne Steyn – just as much of a cult figure in Pretoria for metronomic success off the tee – banged one over to put the Bulls 20-19 in front.
Surging straight back onto the attack and with renewed vigour and urgency evident right through their ranks, the hosts were offered a trio of mostly easy-range penalties in the 67th, 70th and 72nd minutes, only to defy the wishes of the vast majority of the partisan crowd and go for the intended attacking lineout each time.
On every occasion, the Bulls only won sloppy ball or were even more damagingly turned over wholly as the Brumbies wriggled out of the tight spots to contemplate late show-sealing moves of their own.
Eventually, with home-based public and pundits positively baying for the right thing to be done, Steyn did bang a kick through the sticks to increase the lead to 23-19, albeit still leaving dangerous room for a swing in fortune.
It is also history now that in the 79th minute, with the Bulls’ defensive alignment fatally exposed by one man popping out of the
“wall”, Brumbies flyhalf Matt Toomua skilfully slipped through a gap to provide an inside pass that produced a seven-pointer, ensuring the Aussie outfit’s onward passage to next weekend’s final against defending champions the Chiefs.
Former Bok coach Nick Mallett described the spurning of the kicks as “strangely un-Bulls-like”, and ace accumulator Botha was just as critical.
“Morne should have taken (the initiative) himself and gone up and said ‘look, I’m kicking the points, and then let’s start again’.
“I also wouldn’t have taken off Chiliboy (Ralepelle) and Jacques Potgieter (during the final quarter).”
Bulls hooker Ralepelle, after all, had been a largely smooth-firing element of the lineout-throwing department: how often don’t you see opposition pinches or instances of miscommunication or bad timing shortly after a reserve hooker – in this instance Callie Visagie – comes in from the “cold” of the bench?
Blindside flank Potgieter, meanwhile, had been an inspiring source of go-forward momentum for the Bulls during their second-half revival, clattering into clean-outs with venom and making strong yards with ball in hand to gee up all his fellow-forwards, who had been well under the collective cosh in the first period.
But the bearded marauder, who is about to embark on a series of rugby adventures outside this country, was substituted with almost quarter of an hour to go, and seemingly not yet out of puff.
Plenty of cynics were suggesting afterwards that the Bulls may have perversely got a “good” outcome, given the limited chance of their being able to knock over the Chiefs in Hamilton after the fatiguing long trek to New Zealand.
I am just a little less sure, on that score … after all, the Bulls came massively close to achieving another real triumph of the spirit on Saturday, a characteristic that has fuelled this young outfit’s performances throughout the 2013 competition.
Who is to say they wouldn’t have worn the blue jersey with pride once more at Waikato Stadium, whether in triumph or loss?
Sadly the Highveld semi will long be remembered in the vicinity of Loftus as one that got away for reasons the Bulls might have prevented through greater option-taking nous.
This fish wiggled off the hook … although perhaps many South Africans will now rally behind compatriot Jake White in his quest to power the gutsy Brumbies to the title next Saturday?