Bulls head to Cape happier
Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - For one and a half rugby matches at the start of this season’s Absa Currie Cup, we appeared to get a glimpse of a bleaker future at Loftus.
Thumped by the Sharks in the first round in Durban last week, trouble appeared to be setting in fast for the Blue Bulls all over again on Saturday as the Cheetahs ran up a 17-3 lead at one point and hit the break a healthy 11 points to the good in Pretoria.
Never mind that the Bulls, significant monopolisers of both domestic and broader silverware until pretty recently, have currently been stripped of a galaxy of big names: they have to get used to life without such long-time icons as Victor Matfield, Fourie du Preez and Gurthro Steenkamp immediately anyway.
Of course the transition period over the next couple of years is hardly going to be a walk in the park; even the most diehard of their fans will realise that.
So what a relief for their faithful that a rally of great magnitude by their mostly fresh-faced side took place against the Cheetahs, who may even have gone down the tunnel for their halftime refreshment misguidedly thinking a surprisingly straightforward victory was in the offing.
But something - or somebody, perhaps - stung the home dressing room into corrective action, as the Bulls pack totally redeemed itself in the second half and helped bring dangerous, hitherto ball-starved customers in much wider areas like Gerhard van den Heever and Akona Ndungane handsomely into the picture on the front foot.
The Bulls eventually closed the see-sawing game out 33-30, having struck the lead for the first time on the hour mark, and although they could not manage a fourth try for a bonus point, just winning this one would have given them immense satisfaction.
Their campaign is thus up and running, even if they are already five points adrift of the unbeaten Lions and Sharks on the table and lie in fifth spot after two rounds.
And with last year’s runners-up Western Province - held to a draw at home by Griquas in the first round - earning a full house away to the whipping-boy Leopards on Friday night, the old “south v north” grudge match at Newlands next Saturday is appropriately set up.
Similarly, Mr Price Kings Park will stage an attractive meeting between defending champions the Sharks and a Cheetahs team presumably miffed about their implosion from such a commanding position at Loftus.
Team of the moment, however, is the Lions, so often the laughing stock of the domestic scene in recent seasons for their variety of woes - both boardroom and on-field - but riding high right now in the 2011 Currie Cup as John Mitchell’s gradual drive to recapture their self-respect bears fruit.
Although the game was often rather wild and woolly, long-suffering Lions enthusiasts won’t mind a bit as they blitzed Griquas in their own Kimberley lair by a vast margin and with eight tries to show for their fury.
Six of them came in a first half marked by scrumhalf Jano Vermaak’s rare hat-trick within 25 minutes and welcome passages of fine team continuity and hand skills.
To South African observers lamenting the manner, for the most part, of the Springbok surrender to the Wallabies in Sydney only a couple of hours earlier, at least some local evidence of attacking sparkle and ambition was a minor comfort.
Expect the Lions to solidify their early, lofty status next time out: they’re at home to the Leopards and even if they fail to match such lustre should win reasonably comfortably to go a promising three from three ...
Next weekend’s fixtures (home teams first):
Pumas v Griquas - 19:00
Sharks v Cheetahs - 15:00
Lions v Leopards - 17:00
WP v Blue Bulls - 17:05