Bulls confirm 3-horse SA race
Sport24 chief writer Rob Houwing (File)
Cape Town - Much pre-season Super Rugby
talk in South Africa revolved around the Sharks and Stormers, last season’s
best-progressing sides from these parts, beefing up their squad depth ahead of
the 2013 campaign.
By extension, the implication in some circles
was that the coastal powers would be compelling bets again to go furthest based
on their passage through the SA conference.
Meanwhile the Bulls, presumably, simply quietly
noted the observations and got on with their own preparations and ambitions –
remember that they did still make the play-offs themselves in 2012, even if
they were blown out at the first knockout attempt 28-13 against the Crusaders
in New Zealand.
On Friday night, they issued a warning:
bury any thoughts that the SA challenge may only be a two-team affair this
They won’t even be concerned that their
derby opener against the Stormers, on a balmy Loftus night, was a frankly
wretched, bumbling contest which did little to suggest that finesse and flair
have become renewed priorities in South Africa.
A winning start is a winning start, and by
depriving their two-time conference-topping visitors of a losing bonus point as
well, they ensured that the men under acting captain Jean de Villiers have
begun their latest challenge notably on the back foot, and with immediate
follow-up toughies against the Sharks and Chiefs looming large.
Meanwhile the Bulls ought to only gather
healthy steam for the time being: whatever happens in the Western Force’s first
SA tour match against the Kings later on Saturday, the limited Western
Australians are likely to remain firm underdogs when they travel to Pretoria
So there is every likelihood that when
Pierre Spies and company embark on their Antipodean tour (however they fare, it
will be a fillip to get it out of the way so early) it will be with consecutive
wins beneath their belts.
The Bulls did little outside of their
anticipated template against their fierce southern rivals: the pack rose to the
occasion admirably in spirit and effort (execution of set-piece play wasn’t
always so hot, across the board) which was enough to ensure that flyhalf Morne
Steyn, back with that unmistakable twinkle in his eye, was able not only to
keep the ball deftly in front of the heavies in front of him but also land his
goals like clockwork.
They bossed several one-on-one duels, and
particularly at No 10 where Steyn’s clinical efficiency (let’s not go too
overboard, the man still comes up a bit short for excitement and X-factor) only
glowed more strongly because his Stormers-debutant, opposite number Elton
Jantjies had a game to utterly forget in most respects.
Let’s not be too swift to write off the
diminutive pivot, however: he was undercooked after missing the pre-season
fixtures through an unfortunate family bereavement, and certainly wasn’t the
only Stormers player to look as though he’d forgotten to remove his summer
The Capetonians were absolutely awful in
patches, even if they did show some sense of awakening in the second half.
If Jantjies had the yips when it came to
place-kicking – the Stormers might have sneaked this one had he been more
accurate, but would hardly have merited that outcome – so did Deon Fourie when
it came to lineout throwing.
So it is very much back to the drawing
board for their rather humbled eight; pack coach Matt Proudfoot has his hands
full ahead of the similarly daunting trip to Durban, that’s for sure.
Just as alarming from a Stormers
perspective was how the Bulls, for whom sound scrummaging has not been a forte
for some time, dominated that department.
Considering that seasoned tighthead prop Werner
Kruger unusually left the park through injury as early as the 25th
minute, and that loosehead Morne Mellett was making his Super Rugby debut, the
Cape side will be alarmed that their starting front-row combo of
Kitshoff-Fourie-Cilliers was still eclipsed.
The Stormers clearly need characters like
Schalk Burger and Eben Etzebeth to add some mongrel and “desperation” to their
engine room, but don’t hold your breath, Stormers fans ... that could still be
several weeks away in both instances and the big inconvenience and worry is
that their agenda is definitely stiffest in the first part of the conference
Possibly the biggest dilemma facing head
coach Allister Coetzee for the week-two challenge of the Sharks, however, will
be whether to sideline Jantjies so unreasonably early and consider the more
pragmatic but still highly attractive claims of Peter Grant, who will
reportedly be available for selection and knows the Cape side’s systems so
Both the Bulls and Stormers lost several of
their personnel to injuries on Friday, with medical verdicts awaited.
Perhaps you’re not supposed to whisper it
too loudly, but could the phenomenon again have been at least partly due to the
ongoing, lopsided South African obsession with raw “collision”?
Just a thought ...
our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing