Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – The Bulls may have a recent reputation as a
strong second-half team, but tour fatigue
may finally have got to their legs to
some extent as a reverse phenomenon came to haunt them on Friday.
Playing the last of their four Super Rugby matches abroad
against the Chiefs in Hamilton, the men from Pretoria seemed menacingly on course
for a third Australasian victory as they held sway 16-8 at halftime after 40
minutes of high-calibre physicality and mauling zest.
But the Chiefs are certainly made of increasingly stern
stuff these days, and instead were the ones to produce a second wind in an
enthralling contest to power their way over the line 28-22 at Waikato Stadium.
Gracious losing captain Pierre Spies was quick to commend
the hosts for their three-tries-to-one triumph, marked by the Chiefs pack
standing toe to toe with their traditionally brawny opponents all night and
backline maestros like Sonny Bill Williams becoming ever more influential as
the second half progressed.
“They put us under pressure at the breakdown and deserved to
win,” said Spies, summing up an unflappable showing by the New Zealanders, who
produced crucial spells of fierce counter-rucking when it was particularly
The Bulls never surrendered their spirit, but perhaps tiring
bodies were simply not able to match seemingly willing minds as thoughts
involuntarily drifted toward getting a foot on the plane for the long haul back
to face main SA conference rivals the Stormers at Loftus next weekend.
All is not lost for the Bulls, that’s for sure, as they
return to more familiar soil: they did bag a losing bonus point and also denied
the Chiefs a four-try extra log point themselves, even if the outcome meant the
Mooloo Men return to the top of the overall table with four-point superiority
over the second-placed Stormers.
Jean de Villiers and company will nevertheless seize back
supremacy rapidly if they beat the Sharks at Mr Price Kings Park.
Frans Ludeke’s charges could still sport a respectable tour
harvest of 11 points from a possible 20, despite losing both fixtures on the
New Zealand leg.
Great foes the Stormers currently have a one-point edge over
the Bulls with Saturday’s Durban game in hand – win that one and they can
ensure some useful “daylight” between them ahead of the humungous Highveld
battle on June 2.
Whilst the Bulls may be curtailed to fourth (though only
behind the Brumbies because of the table rules) they are still only five points
behind the pace-setting Chiefs.
So both they and the Stormers retain decent enough chances
of ending ordinary season as the best-placed side, even if their own clash could
be a make-or-breaker in that regard.
A glance at the fixture list tells you that the Chiefs must
play three of their four remaining games away, and all of them are NZ derbies.
In addition, their only home match is against those cunning
Crusaders, whom few would bet against still sneaking into the playoffs despite
a strange inconsistency this season.
The Bulls’ quartet of games still to play are also derbies,
but three of them will be at Loftus – against the Stormers, Cheetahs and Lions.
Their only trip will be the short flight to Durban to meet the Sharks on the
Friday night of July 6.
That is not to say that the Chiefs don’t have a tantalising
chance now to set up a first-time home final.
Their healthy situation on the overall table is helped by a
hugely successful mini-tour of South Africa in mid-April, where they earned
nine out of 10 points by beating the Cheetahs and Sharks.
Perhaps the Bulls not quite managing, by contrast, to get
past the post in either of their matches in the Land of the Long White Cloud
will be a decisive factor in the race for that home showpiece?
That said, all sorts of permutations and twists and turns in
both overall and conference terms still lie ahead ...
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