Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - The last time the Bulls won the Super Rugby crown, they often boasted more high-class locks on their books than they could even accommodate on match days.
Legendary Victor Matfield
and versatile Danie Rossouw were the starting pair in the second row as they outmuscled the then-emerging Stormers 25-17 in the final at Orlando Stadium in 2010.Bakkies Botha
was suspended at the time, and Flip van der Merwe at least managed to nail down a place on the bench.As it happened: Stormers v BullsGALLERY: Stormers v Bulls
All of Matfield, Botha and Rossouw have since exited the Loftus playing scene, of course, leaving Van der Merwe currently their most experienced lock following the desperately untimely, early release of current Bok squad colleague Juandre Kruger
to Racing Metro recently.
But in Saturday night’s comprehensive 30-13 Newlands defeat
to their southern arch-rivals in the last game of the 2013 ordinary season, which saw the Bulls curtailed to second place overall and thus guaranteed a home semi-final in a fortnight but not necessarily the showpiece itself, Van der Merwe added to jitters around present Bulls lock stocks by picking up a groin injury.
The big fellow trudged a little awkwardly off after 44 minutes, to be replaced by the rookie utility forward Jacques du Plessis, a member of the Baby Boks team which secured third place at this year’s IRB Junior World Championship in France.
Du Plessis, who was more familiar to the No 7 role at that recent tournament, looked pretty competitive during his stint for the already ailing Bulls’ cause, but despite his physical attributes (119kg and 2.01m) he remains a real greenhorn at Super Rugby level, particularly considering that the competition has reached the white-knuckle knockout phase.
As things stand, then, 22-year-old Grant Hattingh is the most “senior” fit Bulls second-rower - he wore the pink No 5 jersey at Newlands - and he is hardly a seasoned customer himself at this level, where he is playing only his second season.
A ray of light for coach Frans Ludeke
is that the burly Paul Willemse is reportedly fit again after a near three-month absence through a knee injury, though clearly will be low on match sharpness.
It makes it vital that Van der Merwe take his spot in the Pretoria semi, likely to be against the Brumbies if Jake White
’s charges knock over the visiting Cheetahs, playing their first ever match at this advanced stage of the competition in Canberra next weekend.
Saturday’s unexpectedly heavy reverse, snapping a nine-game winning streak by the Bulls, did confirm that for all their other qualities and admirable spirit, the tight five remains an area of significant concern for them.
They remain much more vulnerable than they would like to be at scrum-time, and their lineout game has taken a major knock too, considering that kingpin Kruger has gone and first-choice captain Pierre Spies
, normally a strong source of security in that capacity at the back, is ruled out for the season.
Ludeke said after the Newlands defeat that he hoped the “bye” week now comfortingly ahead for the Bulls would provide enough time for Van der Merwe to make the cut for the semi.
He also told Sport24 that he fancied two Springboks, Francois Hougaard
- an option at both scrumhalf and wing - and fast-developing inside centre Jan Serfontein
, would be back in consideration for selection after missing the Stormers clash through injuries.
Serfontein’s restoration to duty would be especially welcome: in the absence of a truly dominating set-piece at present (although in the likes of Jacques Potgieter and company the Bulls’ reputation for open-play ruggedness very much remains intact) the X-factor he provides in the backline cannot be under-estimated.
As Jean de Villiers, the victorious Stormers captain, pointed out on Saturday, Serfontein “means a lot to the Bulls as a ball-carrier” even if the No 12 employed at Newlands, Francois Venter, is no slouch.
Both Ludeke and acting skipper Dewald Potgieter
were magnanimous about their loss, and you sensed they may have seen certain blessings in the Bulls’ long winning run being snapped.
In this murderous competition, victorious stints seldom last that long and the last thing they would have wanted was for it to come to a cruel halt instead in straight knockout activity.
“It’s really a new competition in many senses now, and we put this (loss) behind us,” said Ludeke.
“We had our opportunities, but the Stormers were better than us here. They didn’t give us gain-line ... they played with freedom and with nothing to lose.
“The Stormers were a very determined side but at least we kept on going. Our set-piece certainly wasn’t good enough but we know what we have to work on for the semi-final.”
Potgieter felt that the concession of two tries (to Eben Etzebeth
and then Bryan Habana
) in the first quarter played a major role in the loss - “that was roughly the margin of victory in the end” - implying that the Bulls will have to play with much more of an 80-minute focus and cohesiveness in the semi.
While certain alarm bells may be ringing in terms of their overall quality as possible title material, it must be remembered that the Bulls have done fabulously well to win the SA conference just two years after the departure of so many Loftus icons.
They are a tantalising two games away from a fourth Super Rugby title for the franchise, and it is also just possible that Loftus may get the final anyway, if the Crusaders eclipse the other New Zealand team, defending champions the Chiefs, to a berth in it.*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing