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
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.
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