Bulls face must-win match
Cape Town - The Blue Bulls, traditionally a powerhouse of the domestic game, find themselves in danger of falling significantly behind the main pack when the Currie Cup round-robin phase reaches the halfway mark next weekend.
That will certainly be the unpalatable situation for them if they crash to a rare, third loss on the trot when the high-riding Cheetahs visit Loftus on Saturday (17:05).
Although there is still room for plenty of twists and turns in an already enthralling race, Pine Pienaar’s charges would slide to a dangerous degree off the semis-chasing pace if they do slip up again.
As it is, they have fallen to the basement slot on the six-team table, eight points adrift of their latest conquerors, the now log-leading Sharks.
It is perhaps a sign of slightly precarious times in the Bulls camp that some experts were trumpeting their 'improvement' in this weekend’s reverse at Kings Park ... not too long ago a 34-18 defeat for the franchise would have been assessed only with outright disapproval and alarmism.
Of course they were slightly better, but only in the sense that they leaked roughly half as many points as they did in that embarrassing 62-23 home defeat to the Golden Lions seven days earlier.
The fact remains that after a pretty inspired start to the programme, in which they were very good value for a draw at the Newlands home of defending champions Western Province, the Bulls have subsided fairly dramatically -- it is clear that a recent, second mass wave of departures by experienced pros in two years is taking the toll many feared it might.
Still laden with more wet-behind-the-ears players than they would probably like (though some may eventually make the grade stirringly), the visitors were going toe to toe with the Sharks promisingly in the first half, but when the 2012 runners-up started to use the width of the park more effectively and creatively in the second period, were easily enough doused.
It says something about the contrasting levels of seasoned personnel between the sides that the Sharks were able to infuse – in some cases with decisive effect – such characters as Charl McLeod, Kyle Cooper and Butch James
off their bench to hammer final nails into the Bulls’ coffin on the day.
While there is every chance the Bulls -- some of their young guns currently going through those crucial, tough trainee yards -- will be forceful anew at both Currie Cup and Super Rugby level before too long, maybe it is too ambitious to expect them to nab more silverware for the Loftus cabinet in the short term.
That said, the competition this year is so well-contested and tight that a morale-lifting win against the Cheetahs would place the Bulls well back in the running for a berth in the last four.
The Sharks, benefiting from WP’s second-half unravelling (from a menacing 15-point lead at the break) for a stalemate against the Golden Lions at Ellis Park the night before, surged to the top of the log after their bonus-point triumph, two points clear of both the Cheetahs and Province.
It nicely spices up Saturday’s showpiece coastal derby at Newlands (19:10); a Sharks victory there would set them up fairly handsomely for a possible home final again – although ironically they couldn’t cash in on that benefit last year when underdogs Province raided Durban for the crown.
But it is not as though even the leaders are playing with any special aura yet to suggest they have "champions" stamped all over them: frankly, any of the Sharks, Cheetahs, WP and Lions at this juncture look as though they cannot be written off for glory.
The only unbeaten outfit are Deon Fourie’s Capetonians, although bear in mind that they have sneaked two wins by one point and their other two results are draws!
It only further demonstrates the fascinating tightrope being walked by most comers in the Currie Cup this season ...Next weekend’s fixtures (all Saturday):
Griquas v Golden Lions, Kimberley, 15:00; Blue Bulls v Cheetahs, Pretoria, 17:05; Western Province v Sharks, Cape Town, 19:10.*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing