Bulls must hit back in Oz
Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – Three-times champions the Bulls need to urgently slash their error rate and lift precision “across the ditch” in Australia if they are to remain contenders for the 2014 Super Rugby title.
They have now suffered consecutive defeats in New Zealand -- following Friday’s bumbling 27-20 reverse to the Highlanders in a game they ought to have won – albeit again with a losing bonus point which is something to take solace from.
Yet the fact remains that the Bulls have now not won in three matches, and simply must triumph at least once in their remaining tour fixtures (Waratahs in Sydney and Force in Perth) if they wish to stay realistic prospects for a playoffs berth at the end of ordinary season.
Failing that, and they will face the likely, high-pressure prospect of having to win every time in six matches back on South African soil to steal a top-six finish.
Those obligations include four derbies, and even if the pace-setting Sharks are now safely out of the way for the Bulls (won one, lost one) old adversaries the Stormers must still be faced home and away – you can bet your last rand that despite their woes the Capetonians will be right up for those as intended party spoilers.
The overseas teams yet to visit Loftus this season are the Brumbies, last year’s tournament runners-up, and the Rebels.
For the moment, domestic rivals the Sharks will be smiling about the Bulls’ implosion from such a promising start in Dunedin, as it only adds to the suspicion that Jake White’s charges may have it unusually easy in winning the SA conference.
The Sharks are five points clear of the second-placed Bulls, but with two matches in hand, and Saturday’s Johannesburg derby between the Lions and Sharks is a bit of a “lose-lose” affair for the team from Pretoria – a Sharks win takes them ominously further ahead, whilst a Lions victory a little against the odds would see them haul in the two-point lead over them currently enjoyed by the Bulls and shift Flip van der Merwe’s team down to mid-table locally.
Worryingly, the Bulls did much right at the set-piece against the limited Highlanders, dominating the lineouts where Victor Matfield was utterly metronomic, and banking two or three heels against the head at scrum-time, so generous field position was hardly a problem.
But some abject handling and naive, too-predictable running lines and passing stymied much of their yeoman work in other areas.
This was yet another case of a South African team producing inspiring passages of play against overseas foes ... but tellingly, only passages!
For a while in the first half the Bulls were all over their opponents, getting swift possession and perhaps surprisingly the Highlanders with their ball-in-hand intent as well.
But once the hosts gained some traction, the Bulls’ makeshift situation at open-side flank simply became apparent all over again – they were turned over infuriatingly at the breakdown time and time again in the second half, largely because they have such tall, upright customers in the injury-hit loose trio.
A very rapid priority for coach Frans Ludeke, surely, is to find a proper No 6 from somewhere, anywhere?
The New Zealand commentators were mystified, too, when a pumped-up Dean Greyling, who had been the best Bulls ball-carrier all game, was replaced well before the three-quarter mark in the clash.
A major lift in patience and guile is required if the Bulls are to knock over the Waratahs next weekend, not least because the Sydney outfit will offer much more physicality and efficiency in the engine room than seen from the Highlanders ...
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