It may have taken a monsoon to turn the tide, but the Toyota Cheetahs drowned out the Vodacom Bulls to record their first ever Vodacom Super Rugby victory against the Pretoria side, winning 15-9 in terrible weather conditions at the Free State Stadium in Bloemfontein on Friday night.
In a fierce downpour that washed away all hopes of an attractive rugby game, the home side outthought, outplayed and even outkicked the Bulls side, plunging the visitors into a mini-crisis in round two of the tournament.
Four penalties and a drop goal from flyhalf Johan Goosen was enough to be the difference between the two sides – and despite dominating the second half the Bulls were only able to add Handre Pollard’s 79th-minute penalty to the two earlier from Louis Fouche as they trudged off the field in search of hot showers and plenty of answers to their problems at the moment.
To take away from the Cheetahs' performance would be cruel. They played the right game in the wet weather, smothered the Bulls attacks and coped with the kick and chase as well as could be expected in the rain.
If anything, they excelled on defence with the loose trio of Lappies Labuschagne, Phillip van der Walt and Boom Prinsloo ruling the breakdown all night long.
And then there was Willie le Roux – the Springbok fullback showed last year in Scotland he can play an all-weather game, and if there are still any critics out there that want to argue the point, all he needs to do is make them watch this game over and over for punishment.
Le Roux was simply exceptional on the evening and as the poor Bulls kicking continued, he grew in stature and kept the visitors on the back foot at every opportunity.
The Cheetahs clearly came with a strategy and as the weather deteriorated they stuck to it.
The Bulls love talking about execution as the key to victory, but on a night where they dominated rucks and had way more ball carries than the opposition, execution was hardly a factor.
Again – as against the Sharks – the Bulls tried their kick and chase, and used their direct runners to try and make yards. Once these two factors were negated, and with a lack of a plan B, the Bulls simply looked rudderless.
And rudderless they were. Twenty turnovers conceded tells a sorry tale for a side that last year made the semifinals, but this year are looking as if they will struggle to make the top half of the competition.
And it is more than this – while the Bulls will talk about patience and execution, there is a disjointed look about the pack at the moment, with Francois Hougaard looking increasingly uncomfortable in his role at No 9.
In the first two games this season Hougaard has almost exclusively been either a link to the backline or the kick and chase instigator. Either way, his spark – the X-factor he has – has been missing from Bulls games.
Flyhalf Fouche had a nightmare of a game, missing three kicks and making a plethora of small mistakes when the Bulls had the ball that put them under pressure. While Fouche will improve, there will already be those who are calling for a change after two losses.
Still, the flyhalf is not the only one to blame. On the night the Cheetahs were tactically better, more astute and used their kicking game much more effectively.
If the Bulls are to have any impact in this year’s competition, they will not only need to improve on this, but get their pack working as a unit and employ a fetcher that plays to the ball.
Every attack the Bulls had, the Cheetahs countered, and their tackling was ferocious. Add to this the many mistakes in the wet and the Bulls simply couldn’t buy a score.
As they faltered it only made one wonder how things have changed so quickly, with less than a year going from semifinalists to the poor display in the Bloemfontein rain.
The Cheetahs will get on the plane for their four-week tour on a high, knowing they can play in all conditions and that their pack can stand up to the bullies.
But for the Bulls it will be a week of soul searching. There are several players who at this early stage of the competition need to have a long hard look at their own performances. Ludeke may himself need to make some tough changes.
Rain in these parts is always welcomed for the boost it gives the local farmers, and the Cheetahs will share that joy on a night where another record was broken.
The Bulls will trudge away in self-reflection, knowing they have a lot of worries that need sorting out.
TOYOTA CHEETAHS 15 – Drop Goal: Johan Goosen; Penalties: Goosen (4).
VODACOM BULLS 9 – Penalties: Louis Fouche, Handre Pollard (2).