Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - First, the unlikely bit of post-match good news: the Bulls a little bizarrely climbed the overall Super Rugby table by four places to second on Friday.
As it happened: Blues 23-18 Bulls
Sixth going into their round-opening game against the Blues at Eden Park, the fact that they earned the consolation of a losing bonus point in a 23-18 defeat to the low-lying Aucklanders was enough to propel them - at least for a day - back to surprisingly loftier real estate.
They also recaptured leadership of the ding-dong South African conference from the Stormers (inactive this weekend) as their shift to 35 points took them ahead of the Capetonians by one after the same number of games, 12.
On any other day, you might think that’s a pretty nifty bit of work.
But now for the reality check: Pierre Spies’s side may find that several others have overtaken them in log-points terms by the end of the weekend, including one of Australian outfits the Brumbies or Waratahs pinching their “second home semi-final” berth.
There is also the chance that the commendably over-achieving Lions, if they see off the Brumbies at Emirates Airline Park on Saturday, will grab the local conference pole position - something that would be a tremendous achievement by them at such an advanced stage of the campaign.
Perhaps the worst aspect of Friday’s result, however, is simply the fact that it actually occurred against a New Zealand team sporting a miserly two victories before it.
The Blues date always shaped up on paper as the least taxing of the Bulls’ four-match roster abroad, and also an opportunity to give the expedition vital early oomph.
Suddenly the Bulls are on the back foot, and knowing that they will need to play infinitely better if they are to win the lion’s share of the remaining tour tasks against the Chiefs (next Friday), Brumbies and Rebels.
Surrender another couple and both the Stormers and Lions, operating exclusively on the less intimidating turf of SA, will certainly fancy their prospects of ending ahead of the Loftus-based side.
The Bulls ought to be kicking themselves: they enjoyed generous periods of the Auckland encounter when they were notably on the front foot, but lacked too much in conviction, smartness and composure.
Especially in the first half, the Blues seemed to cash in on the scoreboard every time they made rare advances deep into enemy terrain – including from penalties, where captain Spies was twice culpable at breakdowns -- which was enough to get their tails up in the second 40 minutes to press for the slightly upset triumph.
Several individual Bulls kingpins mixed the good with the bad: Victor Matfield, for example, was typically safe clutching his own intended lineout ball and made a few decisive tackles, but also might have mixed it a bit more in the tighter exchanges at times.
Handre Pollard more or less gifted the Blues one try when he failed to find touch with a relieving kick from beneath his own posts off his weaker left foot, but also mostly defended his channel stoutly and made a deft mini-break to tee up one of Jan Serfontein’s brace of tries.
There were other infuriating moments like Serfontein putting through a wasted grubber in a very promising ball-in-hand attack position, replacement hooker Callie Visagie being too easily run into touch once when in possession, and one Bulls forward trying a suicidal flick-back off the deck when his team was under the cosh and he needed to simply take the ball in for security – luckily a handling error from the Blues prevented the error being costly on the board.
The great shame, really, was that the Bulls largely binned their balanced, vibrant all-round game of recent weeks, and thus weren’t properly able to exploit the Aucklanders’ known organisational shortcomings on defence.
As former All Blacks coach John Mitchell noted in the SuperSport studio: “The Bulls put away their attacking game and got arrogant, thinking they would just dominate with a conservative game (based on) forward domination and a premeditated kicking game.”
Clearly a spot of fresh soul-searching is required if the Bulls are to arrest, against the formidable Chiefs, a run of successive defeats in Australasia that has now blown out to eight ...
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