Vodacom Super 14

Bulls: new golden era?

2009-05-30 21:43
Bulls star locks Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha (AFP)
Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

Cape Town – They have provided the most magical day in South African Super rugby history … and the “incredi-Bulls” may well sniff further glory ahead.

That is a thought worth savouring as Pretoria – and much of the rest of the country – goes dilly in the wake of the Bulls’ romp to a 61-17 victory over the Chiefs in Saturday’s high-octane Vodacom Super 14 final at Loftus.

It was eight tries to two and that is a quite awesome statistic against a gritty New Zealand outfit who were certainly left punch-drunk at times but had their own moments, albeit only that, and did not make massive concessions in pride.

Again the “long trip” factor in Super 14 knockout-phase rugby played its part in terms of the Chiefs’ torment, although the gracious losers did not beef about it - knowing full well that South African teams have floundered on Antipodean rocks under similar circumstances before.

And yet the margin of triumph was especially giddy here, and a cherry-on-top testament to the way Victor Matfield’s side have upped their game to unprecedented levels of thrilling finesse, allied to their long-established brute force, in recent weeks.

The Bulls are fitting champions, especially after topping the league stage of the competition: only the pig-headed or deluded would dispute that.

I suggested in the lead-up to the final that all the home side still yearned for in 2009 – besides a second jubilant grip on the trophy in three years, of course – was a performance to match Barcelona’s blanket dismantling of Manchester United in the Champions League soccer final just three days before.

Well, perhaps they even went better than that? For if Barca might feasibly have beaten the Red Devils by more than the 2-0 they did, the Bulls actually went on a record spree in this rugby showpiece.

Having led 34-7 at half-time, there was again one period, for some 15 minutes into the second half, where they stepped off the pedal and just lost their blistering rhythm for a while.

But perhaps we should instead credit Mils Muliaina’s team for their no-white-flag resolve in that time, especially as they were probably still reeling from the permanent, 12th minute exit through likely concussion of their brawny hooker and one of their inspirations in reaching a maiden final this year, Aled de Malmanche.

Mind you, the Bulls were also hit in the first quarter by their outstanding young fetcher Deon Stegmann limping off and not returning – he had started like a house on fire, although it is a comfort when you can simply bring on big Pedrie Wannenburg for a 98th appearance in the competition.

And if the Bulls did lose a wee bit of verve early in the second period, they only redoubled their bid to return to an elegant front foot: it started raining home-team tries all over again as the packed stadium got into carnival mode long before the silverware was actually hoisted skyward.

So where do the Bulls go from here in Super rugby terms? The world is potentially their … er, biltong.

Next year is the last of the tournament in Super 14 format before an extra franchise is added and the structure changes dramatically, and there is probably already every reason to assume they will be installed as 2010 favourites, despite a pronounced feeling in New Zealand that the Crusaders are back on the “up”.

After all, it will be the “alternate” year under the existing arrangement, when the Bulls will be beneficiaries of seven games at home and six away, rather than the other way around, and only four overseas matches as opposed to five.

And let’s face it, the more rugby at Loftus, the more difficult to lasso these juggernaut, gallivanting Bulls will be: the venue must be as formidable to New Zealand and Australian opponents as sea-level soccer teams find playing in Bolivia’s lofty, lung-crushing La Paz!

Of course there is always the possibility of some personnel changes in the corral, and these are the sort of things that can change landscapes more violently sometimes than sports teams would wish.

But just how many Bulls incumbents will seek other domestic homes or, indeed, brave the soft and muddy pitches of Europe, while such heady levels of glory beckon right where they are?

A mass exodus from this tightly-bonded “family” seems highly unlikely: let’s not forget that there is also the juicy little incentive ahead of wanting to wrest the Currie Cup from the Sharks’ hands, and the Bulls have not been lone holders of that trophy since 2004.

In terms of the existing, broad Bulls squad, it must be comforting to their fans that there are very few truly long-in-the-tooth customers at Loftus.

One, of course, is captain Matfield, who turned 32 earlier this month: will he hang out for another World Cup or could the coming Lions Test series possibly mark his swansong from all rugby?

Danie Rossouw, one of the best second-row super-subs you could wish for anywhere, is 31, so the franchise will be anxious to keep their lock factory in decent health, going forward -- and perhaps even extend their tentacles beyond their geographical boundary to ensure that is the case.

Scrumhalf wizard Fourie du Preez is in the prime of his playing life at 27 and was simply stupendous in the final: a wonderful Springbok fillip for their big looming three-Test task.

But the great thing about the Super 14 champions is that they possess several players already producing international-class rugby, or nearly that, and nowhere near peaking yet: Stegmann, Pierre Spies, Zane Kirchner, Derick Kuun and Morne Steyn are just a few examples, with Chiliboy Ralepelle’s own budding career also now firmly back on track after some major injury setbacks.

How fitting, too, that as the clock wound down on the inevitable Bulls triumph over the Chiefs, the coaches saw fit to give a future-generation customer like Burton Francis, 22, a sample of the big life at flyhalf.

No, it’s hard to see this currently cock-a-hoop crew fragmenting too soon.

Besides, what’s that they say in Afrikaans about “Ek bly ‘n Bul”?


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