Vodacom Super 14
Bulls, Crusaders show class
Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Wynand Olivier and Pierre Spies (Gallo Images)
Cape Town – These are ridiculously early days, of course, but already we have seen strong signals of intent from the Bulls and Crusaders, two of the most highly-touted teams for the 2010 Vodacom Super 14 title.
Both the defending champion South African side and the apparently resurgent New Zealand outfit earned bonus-point wins first up in respective derbies, against the Cheetahs and Highlanders.
For the little it is worth, you might argue that the Bulls did the business more slickly: they basically banked the extra point as early as the 47th minute of their potentially tricky assignment in Bloemfontein on Friday night and went on to register six tries to three in a pulsating, point-a-minute 51-34 victory.
The Crusaders, in their home clash against the honest, workmanlike Highlanders on Saturday, only registered their fourth try seconds before the siren in a slightly flattering 32-17 triumph.
Yet it was a typically unflappable, professional performance from the tournament’s most iconic team, boasting as they do seven titles: the wily red-and-blacks, who will welcome the resting Richie McCaw back in a week or two, still managed to close out the game with a “maximum” haul despite skating on thin ice for a while as the visitors cheekily closed the gap to 18-17 inside the final quarter.
Certainly even at this infant point it is hard to see either the Bulls or Crusaders being deprived of semi-final slots, with the 2009 trophy-winners still ahead by a whisker in my own estimation in terms of key “home final” prospects.
The Bulls probably have the better tourney draw of the two, as this is the alternate year when they play only four rather than five overseas games, and the Christchurch combo finish their own programme in notably difficult fashion – Stormers and Bulls abroad and then Brumbies back at home.
In the Bloemfontein clash, there was evidence of defensive naivety from both sides … coincidentally, especially in the outside centre channel, I thought.
But there was also some really snappy attacking intent and execution across the park, and this was almost a flashback to the try-fest Super 14 days of old: could it just be that the stricter policing of the breakdown and set scrums by referees is, indeed, going to eventually open up games again?
The Cheetahs will be a little miffed that they got nothing out of the fixture after managing three tries – one a long-range, hand-to-hand classic – and showing delightful flair at times amongst a torpedoing back three of Jongi Nokwe, Lionel Mapoe and Riaan Viljoen.
Sadly it is nevertheless difficult to imagine Juan Smith’s side finishing outside the bottom four or five, because their away record in the competition, particularly overseas, remains so lamentable. That said, they ought to silence the occasional big gun in “Bloem”.
But the Bulls have largely buried their own travel bogey in recent years, and they showed enough opening-game mettle in various departments to suggest they will relinquish the silverware very, very reluctantly.
Indeed, as much as they underlined some of their known strengths – Pierre Spies rampaged hungrily and Deon Stegmann confirmed his rise as a quality fetcher against the more hyped Heinrich Brussow – the Pretoria team also subdued on the night fears of an Achilles heel or two.
Their scrum suddenly looked as if it was made of sterner stuff again after Gurthro Steenkamp, probably revelling in having old favourite Gary Botha back alongside him at No 2, had a surprisingly handy stint at the office against last season’s Currie Cup tighthead “find” WP Nel.
The experienced Springbok, whose scrummaging stocks have been slightly in decline for three or four years, reminded Nel, who is perhaps starting that “awkward second season” at first-class level, that good right shoulders don’t just grow on trees.
And while the Bulls were admirably served, as ever, in the important “nine, 10 and 12” area by Fourie du Preez, a hot-stepping Morne Steyn and combative, committed Wynand Olivier, there was also much comfort for those many Bulls fans rueing the departure of one Bryan Habana.
I believe we saw enough flashes of promise from 20-year-old Gerhard van den Heever to suggest there’s a new, baby-faced wing assassin cantering into town.
Long road ahead, but a little flutter on a Bulls v Crusaders final, anyone?