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    Bulls must restore SA pride

    2014-04-23 12:13

    Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

    Cape Town – When three-time Super Rugby champions the Bulls run out against the Western Force in Perth on Saturday, without suspended skipper Flip van der Merwe, they will carrying a dual burden.

    Not only is the match (11:40 SA time) quite likely to be instrumental in whether they keep any playoffs interest this year, but it will also be a timely opportunity to restore some overdue smiles to collective South African rugby faces.

    To put it bluntly, our conference has been glaringly the worst both for results – the Sharks notably apart – and standard of play in the first half of ordinary season.

    SA teams have also failed 11 times from as many starts to earn a victory abroad in 2014, an embarrassing state of affairs.

    In addition, the stakes are higher than usual at NIB Stadium given the unexpected competitiveness of the Force in 2014: often a game specifically targeted by the better SA teams for a likely four or five points, it is rather different this time as the Western Australians have strong top six aspirations of their own.

    The Force are already considerably better placed for the playoffs than the Bulls, given their fifth-placed status overall and 23 points from eight games; the Pretoria-based side ride ninth and have 19 from nine.

    So another setback for Frans Ludeke’s charges not only further diminishes their own chances of advancing to that phase, it also boosts the aspirations of a key rival outfit for a ticket to the party.

    You can just about stop short of branding the Bulls’ tour a disaster at this juncture, for the simple reason that they have pinched a losing bonus point in each of the three losses – that is the equivalent of earning, say, a healthy four-try draw against some tricky Antipodean foe.

    But it is also historically very difficult for South African sides to crack the last six if they lose all four fixtures overseas – just one point again in Perth would only drag the men from Loftus further down among the rats and mice.

    A win would be a huge tonic, as it might then allow the Bulls some leeway for one hiccup in their remaining six matches (four derbies, plus Brumbies and Rebels) on South African soil.

    The Bulls currently only have three wins, so if they were to crash once more in Perth on Saturday, it would leave them probably needing victories every time to reach the magical number of nine wins, normally the minimum benchmark for playoffs qualification.

    That is a very tall order in the gruelling competition, where peaking every week is just not possible and six from six doesn’t occur often at all.

    Maybe they will take some extra motivation – Ludeke might be wise to stir the dressing room “injustice” pot a bit here -- from the suspension handed out by the SANZAR judiciary on Wednesday to Van der Merwe for striking Paddy Ryan late in the Sydney game against the Waratahs.

    In their press release, SANZAR made it sound as if they had done the big Bok lock a favour by limiting the ban to three weeks, given his “good character” and so on.

    Once again, however, many among the South African rugby public will be a more than a little incredulous that someone like Van der Merwe gets a lengthy sit-out while certain blatant, televised instances of punching by players from the Australasian franchises instead don’t even seem to get as far as the citing process.

    Fortunately the Bulls should not suffer too much second-row damage as a result, given that burly, capable Paul Willemse can slot in pretty seamlessly alongside Victor Matfield, although the latter’s “restricted game-time” formula has to go even closer to the back-burner for the moment ...

     *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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