Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – Although the Cheetahs came so close to setting the cat among the Super Rugby playoffs pigeons in Canberra on Sunday, compatriots the Bulls will quietly be happy with the semi-finals scenario next weekend.
As had been quite widely tipped, the Pretoria-based side will now entertain Jake White
’s Brumbies in one semi at Loftus on Saturday (17:05), while an all-New Zealand potential classic a few hours earlier (09:35) will see defending champions the Chiefs host the eternally competitive Crusaders at Hamilton.
Not only do the Bulls now have arguably a slightly 'easier' game next weekend on paper – although they would under-estimate the Brumbies very much at their peril – but there is a pretty rosy chance that the ‘Saders will knock over the Chiefs in the derby and thus set up a possible Pretoria final as well.
As it is, Ben Mowen and company are now the only remaining side for the semis having to undertake long-haul travel to the Highveld, which is always seen as a considerable drawback, especially after another broadly gruelling ordinary season for everyone.
Side-stepping the Crusaders at Loftus, at least for semis purposes, is a happy outcome for the Frans Ludeke
-coached outfit: the Cantabrians are the one team in the competition who seem to make amazingly light work of the supposed travel bogey and they are also the form team of Super Rugby at a key stage.
The Brumbies have also not won at Loftus since 2006 in the old Super 14 format, when they prevailed 27-21 early in the season.
Since then, the Pretoria results have been: Bulls 28 Brumbies 17 (2008), Bulls 50 Brumbies 32 (2010) and Bulls 36 Brumbies 34 (2012).
The Brumbies do have the minor satisfaction of knowing, however, that they won the latest encounter between the two – 23-20 at Canberra Stadium on March 30 this year.
It was a real nail-biter in which the touring Bulls thought they had done enough to earn a 20-20 draw, courtesy of JJ Engelbrecht
’s late try and Morné Steyn’s tricky conversion from out wide, only for Christian Lealiifano to nail a 45-metre penalty after the siren.
This is the once-mighty Brumbies’ first appearance in Super Rugby semis since 2004, when they earned the last of two titles, and confirms the progress they have made since World Cup 2007-winning Bok coach White took charge – again his knowledge of South African rugby will be a vital tool in their quest to spoil any Pretoria party.
The three-time champion Bulls are likely to be viewed as slight favourites, although neither participant in Saturday’s second semi is exactly in vintage form right now, making an upset a feasible prospect.
Another successful former Bok coach, Nick Mallett, did caution in the SuperSport studio after the Cheetahs’ admirable 15-13 close shave: "The Brumbies play the same territorial game the Bulls do, so the primary phases will be so important."
He warned that the Brumbies might target the Bulls’ current scrum fallibility, and that either of Morne Mellett or Dean Greyling (whichever of the two gets selected by Ludeke at loosehead prop) will have to do a better job of countering Brumbies and Wallaby tighthead Ben Alexander’s pursuit of good right shoulders at the set-piece than the Cheetahs could manage – it played a role in the Brumbies’ desperately narrow win on Sunday.
Plucky to the last, the Cheetahs left their most vibrant and urgent rugby for the last 10 or 15 minutes, when they seemed to have the better remaining energy, and had Riaan Smit’s well-struck conversion attempt from the touchline after the siren not drifted marginally out to the left, perhaps they might have been the likelier team to snatch the game in rare extra time.
The Cheetahs nevertheless head home with their heads held high after the relatively low-budget franchise experienced their best Super Rugby season yet and earned friends everywhere for their positive approach to the game.
Of course banking on a Bulls-Crusaders final is a dangerous pursuit: not only must the Bulls first keep their eyes firmly on the ball mentally against the Brumbies, but the Chiefs will do everything in their power to halt the march of the Crusaders and ensure a second Waikato Stadium showpiece in as many seasons.
It is true that the Crusaders slaughtered the Chiefs 43-15 in Christchurch earlier this month, but that may also only serve as a strong, revenge-geared motivator for the Mooloo Men, who did win the earlier home conference derby between the two 28-19.Saturday’s Super Rugby semi-finals (all times SA):Hamilton:
Chiefs v Crusaders, 09:35Pretoria:
Bulls v Brumbies, 17:05.*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing