Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – Played nine, lost nine ... that is the grim statistical return from South African teams campaigning overseas in Super Rugby 2014 thus far.As it happened: Hurricanes v Bulls
The Cheetahs and Stormers both returned winless from their four-match programmes in Australasia, and now three-time champions the Bulls have got their tour off on the wrong foot by losing 25-20
to the Hurricanes on Saturday.
The result snapped their previously unbeaten, two-match record in small-town Napier, and puts pressure on them to return to winning ways in a fast turnaround fixture against the Highlanders in Dunedin on Friday.
Can they return a collective smile to South African faces at the 10th attempt on enemy shores this year?
It would be a welcome development, considering that SA sides seem to be regressing into bad old ways in terms of viewing the overseas leg as more of an ordeal than a positive challenge – although it mustn’t be forgotten that overall leaders the Sharks are yet to climb aboard a long-haul aircraft.
Frans Ludeke’s charges may still be kicking themselves for failing to land five log points against the Chiefs at their preferred habitat of Loftus last weekend after the prospect had flickered before them so promisingly – instead the defending title-holders roared back to claim a high-scoring draw and limit the Bulls to two points.
What it means is that the men from Pretoria have collected only three points out of a possible 10 from their last two matches and by the end of the current weekend it should see them slip a bit further down the playoffs pecking order.
On the brighter side, the losing bonus point they banked against the ‘Canes was well deserved, after they’d even had a healthy sniff of a pilfered win when reserve flyhalf Handre Pollard produced a lovely break to crash over in the 67th minute and give the tourists the lead by a point.
But then they went behind again to a scrum penalty – an area where the Bulls played worrying second fiddle throughout – seven minutes from time, and another penalty concession after the siren only stretched the Hurricanes’ advantage a tad.
There were, nevertheless, encouraging aspects to the Bulls’ showing, considering how under the cosh they had looked in the opening-quarter bombardment from the fired-up hosts.
The visitors were forced into making some 50 tackles in the first 14 minutes alone ... a figure that is bound to have some impact on collective stamina over the course of the full 80, isn’t it?
It was also in that period of desperate defending that the Bulls’ forward structure was severely impeded by the loss through injury of two stalwart loose forwards in Deon Stegmann and a hitherto industrious Dewald Potgieter.
Diminutive fetcher Stegmann has been in decent form of late, showing a greater inclination not to incur the transgression wrath of referees, and when he exited the whole shape and balance of the loose trio was damagingly altered.
It meant that, at least in physical appearance, it almost seemed as if the Bulls were fielding five locks between positions four and eight: big Jacques “Vleis” Engelbrecht suddenly found himself the unlikely open-side flanker as Grant Hattingh came on at No 8 and another sub, Jacques du Plessis, stayed at blindside and grafted manfully.
So breakdown strategy became an increasing problem, with so many upright bruisers trying to adapt their games to fit the new, impromptu requirements.
Give the Bulls their kudos, though: for much of the second half they endeavoured with some fruitfulness to secure much better territorial traction, and began to get under the ‘Canes collective skins with their never-say-die spirit.
They would also have been inspired by a brave and effective 51 minutes from regular pivot Jacques-Louis Potgieter, who had suffered some sort of painful, dead-leg problem quite early on but refused to come off the park until it became too obvious it would harm his ability to defend his channel with suitable mobility.
“Good on the Bulls for staying in the arm-wrestle,” rightly noted SuperSport critic and former All Blacks coach John Mitchell afterwards.
The more sobering news is that considerably more grim “wrestling” will be required – especially given the already mounting casualty toll – for the Bulls to stay competitive as the tour grinds mercilessly onward.*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing