Top-level rugby returned in South Africa on Saturday with two exhibition games involving the country’s Super Rugby teams following a six-month shutout because of the coronavirus pandemic.
There were no fans for the doubleheader at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria, the out-of-practice teams were allowed to use 15 replacements, and the games stopped midway through each half for water breaks.
Field-side coaching staff wore masks and, in some cases, face shields and medical aprons in a country with more than 660,000 recorded cases of the virus.
The Bulls beat the Sharks 49-28 and Springboks captain Siya Kolisi scored a try to help the Stormers beat the Lions 34-21. Kolisi lay on the ground grimacing and appeared exhausted after his try at the end of the first half. Some of the teams made substitutions as early as 30 minutes in, reflecting how far off full match fitness are the players.
The games weren’t much more than an extended training run, with players out of action since mid-March when Super Rugby was cut short. South Africa's strict lockdown allowed rugby teams to return to full training only at the start of this month.
“(During) the lockdown, the training was so tough,” Kolisi said. “Training by yourself is not the same. This is probably the toughest rugby game I’ve ever played.”
Saturday's games had no bearing on any tournament and were organized to start South Africa's preparations for the delayed four-nation Rugby Championship in Australia in November and December. The Springboks have barely a month to be ready to defend their title.
The Bulls led 35-0 after 32 minutes against the Sharks, with a brace from center and South Africa Sevens star Kurt-Lee Arendse the highlight of the first 40 minutes. His first try was a length-of-the-field breakaway from a turnover.
The Bulls' victory also gave coach Jake White, South Africa's 2007 World Cup-winning coach, a successful return to coaching in his home country.
The Sharks profited as the game broke up in the second half and both made wholesale changes. The Durban-based team closed to 42-28 with less than 10 minutes to go.
Replacement David Kriel completed a double in the dying minutes for the Bulls, who were captained by Springboks No. 8 Duane Vermeulen. The Sharks were led by Springboks center Lukhanyo Am.
"It’s good to be out on the field," Vermeulen said.
Kolisi's score, when he broke through a tackle and galloped over in the right corner, gave the Stormers a 20-7 halftime lead. That was extended when fullback Warrick Gelant, another Springbok, breezed through a gap early in the second for 27-7.
The Lions made 15 changes at once early in the second half. Their replacements scored twice in less than 10 minutes to scare the Stormers, who rounded out victory with a fifth try, this one between the posts from replacement back Paul de Wet.
An extended Springboks squad has been split into two teams for another exhibition game next weekend in Cape Town, the first time the Boks will come together since winning the Rugby World Cup in Japan last November.
“It’s a tough year but we’re looking forward to next week,” Kolisi said.
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