Bulls’ Boks need to front up

    2012-07-17 14:20

    Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

    Cape Town – Several Bulls forwards possibly face a do-or-die game on Saturday (09:35 SA time) in terms of their Springbok aspirations for the fast-looming Rugby Championship.

    These are slightly uneasy times for a franchise renowned for the ruggedness of their pack play, let’s face it: the Bulls eight were comprehensively out-muscled in most facets in that Durban hammering from the Sharks, and then had a surprisingly rough ride at scrum-time against the embattled Lions despite otherwise doing what was necessary at Loftus to ensure onward passage into the Super Rugby playoffs.

    This weekend in Christchurch sees arguably an even greater threat to their collective reputation as the Crusaders, seven-time champions and as well-greased a scrummaging unit as exists around the world in first-class rugby, entertain them in a finals series qualifier.

    It is bad enough that history points heavily to a Bulls exit from the competition at this juncture: whether in knockout or round-robin play, the men from Pretoria have come a cropper every time in that New Zealand city from the late 1990s onwards.

    Almost as often, results there haven’t even been especially close: the last away game the Bulls played against these foes may have been in smaller Timaru, some 150km away, in 2011 but the visitors suffered the rare indignity of being kept scoreless in a 27-0 loss.

    On that occasion, even with such street-wise veterans as Victor Matfield and Bakkies and Gary Botha in their starting midst, ace goal-kicker Morne Steyn only got one opportunity to call for the tee – he missed his attempt – which was a reflection of the Crusaders’ broad dominance on the day.

    Despite such gnarly customers up front now being well out of the picture, the Bulls have retained pretty strong Springbok representation in their engine room, even if some of it is currently not of the “first choice” variety: names like props Dean Greyling and Werner Kruger, lock Flip van der Merwe and flank Dewald Potgieter come to mind.

    Nevertheless, the last Bok team to have played an international, the disappointingly drawn third Test against England in Port Elizabeth, also boasted three Bulls customers in the starting engine-room: Juandre Kruger, Jacques Potgieter and Pierre Spies.

    Even before that series was completed, many neutrals raised eyebrows at what was perceived to be a reasonably Bulls-heavy Bok environment, given that new national coach Heyneke Meyer’s most recent (and extended) prior posting had been at Loftus.

    Certainly the past fortnight or so would have done little to quell any suspicion, rightly or wrongly, that a few men in blue aren’t currently worthy of their higher, green-and-gold status.

    What better way, then, to rout the doubters than for the Bulls pack to genuinely “pitch up” in Christchurch and gain an edge over opponents who will be tipped for fairly widespread ascendancy on current form?

    Particularly under a harsh glare, you would think, will be the prop duo of Greyling and Kruger, quite likely to be targeted for set-piece heat from formidable rivals Wyatt Crockett and either or both of the Franks brothers, Owen and Ben.

    While wise judges of the scrumming game will be quick to remind that it takes more than just the front-rankers to “tango” in this department, it is also said with some conviction that dominance begins, or at least should, with the front-rankers.

    If Bulls loosehead Greyling and No 3 colleague Kruger could not get the better of the Lions’ largely unsung JC Janse van Rensburg and Jacobie Adriaanse last Saturday, do they even have a sniff against the Crusaders’ renowned, treble-pronged prop onslaught?

    Both Bulls men are industrious outside of the scrums, with Greyling a sometimes fearsome ball-carrier and Kruger always an admirably honest tackler and cleaner.

    But props are surely to be primarily judged on their main trade ... and it here that this “Bok B” pair (both got Tri-Nations starts abroad last season in Peter de Villiers’s controversially weakened party for the initial part of the programme) have just not been cutting the mustard of late, for whatever the reason.

    There is also some pressure on No 5 lock Kruger -- who I felt deserved more ticks than crosses for his maiden Bok series against the English -- as Andries Bekker is back in the hunt for the “athletic” lock spot in the Rugby Championship.

    The gangly last-named player appears to have finally put niggling back problems to one side and proved as much personally in an otherwise rather lethargic and unpolished showing by the Stormers against the Melbourne Rebels at Newlands.

    With Bekker back breathing down his neck, Kruger must not only excel at his strong lineout suit against the ‘Saders, but perhaps also contribute forcefully in other respects during the qualifier.

    Of course there is the eternally vexing matter of Spies: the now-seasoned No 8, to his credit, had in an overall context a highly respectable series against England.

    But more recently, back in combat for the Bulls, I would argue that their captain has regressed into an old habit of going quiet for just too long in matches ... even if he is suddenly likely to do something of great prowess that simply screams “notice me!”

    With his path on Saturday probably cleared to a great extent by the expected absence through injury of All Black rival Kieran Read, Spies could do with an industrious performance from start to finish to underline his continued right to Bok eighth-man duty.

    Certainly a few Bulls backline players, notably the halfback combination of Francois Hougaard and pivot Steyn, would be appreciative of a potentially pressure-relieving, revived forward effort against the Crusaders, as they are not exactly watertight either in terms of their Bok statuses right now.

    So from a bigger-picture point of view, as much as anything else, the Bulls must make sure they are not emphatically eaten for breakfast in Christchurch ... that event could just be a catalyst for fairly widespread changes in Springbok personnel soon.

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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