Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - It might be exaggerating to say all of Super Rugby will be trembling just yet, but rivals in the South African conference, at the very least, have been served some notice of the Bulls’ 2012 aspirations.
The Loftus-based side overpowered the Cheetahs
by a striking margin of 23 points (39-16) in their friendly encounter at Polokwane on Saturday, a signal two weeks out from full hostilities that they ought to be a tough nut to crack in the competition and particularly the derby pool.
Inevitably some observers, and probably even a few of their faithful fans, probably assume that a period of rebuilding will be required by the franchise, following the departure en masse of so many iconic Pretoria figures in 2011.
By extension, that implies some months or even a campaign or two of under-performance by a team well used to lifting the tournament spoils.
But while pre-season exercises can be less than accurate barometers, the Bulls demonstrated at Peter Mokaba Stadium that even if their trademark conservative, highly physical formula for attempted success is unlikely to alter to any great extent this year, they will not be easy-beats for anybody.
Why, some of their more optimistic supporters may even be starting to just chew on the possibility that the class of 2012, more youthful in several departments, goes one better than last season by making the playoffs rather than being narrowly squeezed out.
In mid-June last year, the Sharks went to Loftus for an effective eliminator, and won a nail-biter 26-23 to progress, simultaneously scuppering the Bulls’ chances of achieving a hat-trick of titles.
It is the very same opponents who go to Pretoria in just under a fortnight to open SA conference activity, and even if the occasion hardly needs any extra spice, the Bulls’ thumping victory against the Cheetahs on Saturday suggests we’re in for an early cracker under floodlights - and perhaps even a key marker for the long slog ahead?
People forget that the Bulls won’t be suddenly tossing into the fray a bunch of kids just out of nappies, as it were, to compensate for the loss of Messrs Matfield, Botha, Steenkamp, Rossouw and company.
Several of the new generation will be rather more streetwise than that, and it was demonstrated at Polokwane by Dean Greyling, a comfortingly ferocious ball-carrier and mauler to take regular occupancy of the loosehead prop’s jersey, and Juandré Kruger, who confirmed his budding lineout prowess and thus suitability to inherit the No 5 shirt from the peerless Matfield.
I fancy also that, even with Pierre Spies
already known to be captain for the season and thus “safe” for the No 8 slot, a place in the loose trio will simply have to be found - blindside flank, you’d think - for the 21-year-old who stood in for him in the friendly, CJ Stander.
Stander was one of the better Bulls presences in their difficult Currie Cup last year, and seems to be only getting better as a forceful element in the team’s still evident knock-‘em-back-hard philosophy up front.
He did make one bad, unforced handling error against the Cheetahs, on a day when both teams lapsed consistently in the basic ball-skills department: here’s hoping early-season rust was more the reason than the still widely-held belief that South Africa lags behind their other SANZAR partners in this area.
The Bulls look as though they will remain well less than pioneers for unpredictability in their play, which will again revolve around the pack creating a fairly unsubtle but effective bridgehead and Morné Steyn remaining a massively influential figure at flyhalf both with his tactical kicking and pot-shots off the tee - in this match he showed that his metronomic ability at landing the ball between the posts is undimmed.
For long periods of play, both sets of three-quarters just couldn’t get out of the blocks for inspiring hand-to-hand play, which is especially unusual for the Cheetahs.
But as visiting hooker and captain Adriaan Strauss
admitted afterwards: “Credit to the Bulls; they disrupted us totally (for possession) ... our defence was good but we’re an attacking team.”
And hats off to the Bulls for at least manufacturing one genuinely crowd-pleasing, long-range try a minute or two before the final whistle, rounded off by a flying Zane Kirchner
after a slippery bit of skill and deception by admirably versatile Francois Hougaard
Several top overseas Super Rugby teams watching the Polokwane game - if they got the chance - wouldn’t necessarily be quaking about entertaining the new-look Bulls in their own terrain, although they will probably be only too aware that going to Loftus ought to be as taxing an occasion as ever.
I would suggest, though, that South African rivals, mindful of how tight, uncompromising and violent local derbies can be, may just be fearing the Bulls’ “regroup” is happening at a greater rate of knots than they anticipated ...
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