Bulls out to end Blues hoodoo
Johannesburg - They say that winning breeds a winning culture - but the Bulls, unbeaten in their last 13 Super 14 games, will do well not to rely on the adage alone when they play the Blues in Auckland on Saturday.
The reality is that the defending champions have not been at their best in their last two matches against the Hurricanes and the Western Force. It is also a fact that the Bulls have started slowly in virtually all six of their matches to date, leading at halftime in only one of them.
The fact that the Bulls have never beaten the Blues in Auckland is a story in itself.
The Blues, despite three losses and only three wins to date, have done well enough to suggest that they are a dangerous side. They have a front row with three All Blacks, supplemented by five solid players and a backline that is one of the most lethal in the competition with players of the calibre of Isaia Toeava, Joe Rokocoko, Ren Ranger, Rudi Wulf and Stephen Brett, who is a competent flyhalf indeed.
The Blues need a win desperately, or their season could have run its course.
They will be focussed and determined.
However, Bulls captain Victor Matfield has emphasised that the Bulls really want to win this match; that they’re aware of their slow starts and will try to turn that around; and that the Super 14 title is, although not uppermost, truly in their minds.
The Bulls are experienced and a very, very good side. And if the Blues don’t concentrate for the full 80 minutes - something they are yet to do this season - the Bulls should extend their winning sequence.
** At home, the Sharks will hope to make it three in a row after their first five defeats. Their injury problems have continued, and although Andy Goode has been selected, the injury to Adi Jacobs has seen the move of Stefan Terblanche - in his 100th Super game - to centre for the clash against the Reds on Saturday.
It is a sad reflection on the depth of the side that this is necessary -as it is that they have been importing flyhalves for the past few seasons.
John Smit is again at the loosehead side, and Wllem Alberts again starts ahead of Springbok Jean Deyzel.
A win for the Sharks could bring them into (highly unlikely) contention for the play-offs; a loss will spell the end of that dream.
But they are motivated. Lucky they might have been against the Hurricanes last weekend, but their joy at winning was sign enough of a committed and determined team.
** The Reds will know that the tired-looking bunch of Cheetahs they faced last weekend is not a reflection of South African rugby. They’ve won five of their last seven matches in Durban and have the talent to do so again.
The Cheetahs, against fourth-placed Waratahs, have never won in Australasia.
Their good performance against the Bulls to start off the season has deceived, and they have only two wins to their credit.
It will be a small surprise if the South Africans win this match, unless the Waratahs struggle as they did a fortnight ago when they scraped through 14-10 against the Western Force.
The Cheetahs will be without one of their main weapons, their loose trio.
Frans Viljoen and Heinrich Brussow are injured, and Juan Smith has remained behind to be with his father who is seriously ill.
Speed to the loose ball with Springboks Hendro Scholtz and Barend Pieterse - usually a lock - at flank could be a major problem. They are two very good players, but are both probably getting to the end of their distinguished careers.
** The Stormers have a good record against the Force and recorded a convincing 32-16 victory over the Force when these sides last met at the Subiaco Oval in Perth in 2008.
However, with injuries to their kicker Joe Pietersen, a scrum blow to Wicus Blaauw, and the strange selection of the slower Ricky Januarie ahead of Dewaldt Duvenage, this will be no walk-over as the Force showed in no uncertain manner against the Bulls last week.
The Stormers should nevertheless win. Their defence has been solid all season and will withstand any onslaught from a good but unstructured and often disjointed team, and they have a backline - even without Pieterse - that is up there with the best.
** It should be a wonderful match between the Crusaders - third on the log - and the under-performing Hurricanes in Wellington on Friday. It defies logic that the Hurricanes have won only three of their seven matches. They have such a good side that they could do the Stormers and Bulls a favour by knocking Crusaders over - and perhaps give themselves an outside chance to make the play-offs.
This could be a game where their mind-set and lack of confidence will let the Canes down against a side that believes they are the best every time they take the field.
This weekend’s fixtures (home teams first, SA times):
Hurricanes v Crusaders, 8.35am
Western Force v Stormers, 12.05pm
Blues v Bulls, 6.30am
Chiefs v Highlanders, 8.35am
Waratahs v Cheetahs, 10.40am
Sharks v Reds, 5.05pm