Vodacom Super Rugby
Bulls seek magnificent seven
Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Francois Hougaard (Gallo Images)
Cape Town - Marked by the particularly meritorious achievement of knocking over the Stormers in their own Super Rugby backyard this weekend, the Bulls have come from nowhere to suddenly stand a realistic chance of defending their crown.
Back on April 23, the horribly misfiring champions seemed dead in the water as they finished their overseas leg with defeat to the ho-hum Force in Perth.
It meant that they were probably going to have to win all of their last seven matches to sneak into the playoffs - yet they are a mere one week away from achieving that goal against the Sharks at Loftus on Saturday after completing six of the requirements thus far.
The golden run has encompassed these wins, in descending order from the Newlands result: 19-16 v Stormers (away), 23-17 v Waratahs (home), 32-21 v Cheetahs (home), 32-23 v Sharks (away), 47-10 v Rebels (home) and 43-27 v Chiefs (home).
That derby date against the KwaZulu-Natalians, clinging to their own finals series survival quest by a thread after coming from a long way behind to share the spoils with the Lions i
n Johannesburg, may well turn into a straight shootout between the two for onward passage.
The Bulls (in fifth whilst the Sharks lie sixth) must be favoured on present form and with home advantage, but it is also possible both could yet progress, if the currently seventh-placed Waratahs unexpectedly lose in Sydney to Aussie conference rivals the Brumbies.
Elated Bulls skipper Victor Matfield said at the press conference after their seldom pretty triumph at Newlands: "We're just happy to be where we are - still in the competition.
"Six weeks ago we said to each other 'if we lose one more game we're out', and six weeks on we're still in the same position ... one more week to go!
"If we can pull through that one (against the Sharks) then we've still got a chance. The pressure's not off: if we lose next week I think we'll be out of the playoffs. But it's still in our hands. We're still in it."
Explaining the disappointing, error-strewn nature of the Newlands battle, Matfield said: "You can only play as well as the opposition allow you to play, and I think both defences were awesome; really in the faces of each other.
"There wasn't a lot of momentum on offer for either side. That's probably why it looked so messy."
Coach Frans Ludeke felt the Bulls "put points on the board at vital times and applied good pressure on the Stormers".
He said the tension of the occasion was heightened by both sides missing some relatively easy shots at goal.
"But that’s the game, and when it really mattered Morné (Steyn) showed again that he's got the temperament; we back him all the way.
"We always feel we have some of the best technical decision-makers in the world, and also cool, old heads who can make the right decisions when it matters. Today it was more than that, though ... a huge team effort.
"The Stormers' effort level was pretty much the same as ours, so just to get the reward we did ... we're really glad.
"It’s back to basics on Monday after this one. The competition remains wide open and there are lots of teams fighting for the playoffs."
Stormers counterpart Allister Coetzee conceded: "All credit to the Bulls - that's a team that knows how to grind out a victory and they took their opportunities well. They were more accurate than we were and kept better control of things.
"We were really not good. Our first 72 minutes probably represented our worst performance of the season. The set-piece didn't work, especially the lineouts in the first half, and some individual mistakes cost us dearly.
"The points for the Bulls really came from our mistakes, so it's disappointing, to be honest. We can only get better (against the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein); we were genuinely bad here."
But the late, losing bonus point
the Stormers grabbed almost certainly secured their status as SA conference champions, whatever happens next weekend, and they remain on course for second overall - that status has the carrot of a bye weekend plus home semi-final - if they just get the basic win in the Free State.
"We were definitely pleased to get (the point)," Coetzee told Sport24. "It showed there's character in the side; it was great to come back for it.
"We showed in the last couple of minutes, keeping ball in hand, just how well we can play."