Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - Three times the champions of Super Rugby, the rebuilding Bulls were served a reminder this weekend that 2012 will be no cakewalk as they surrendered their unbeaten record in a first encounter with overseas opposition.
At least one neutral South African, the Springbok flank legend Rob Louw, noted in a tweet following their 29-23 Loftus reverse to the Blues on Saturday that the experience and calmness brought by such characters as Victor Matfield
du Preez was clearly missed on a night when the Bulls’ composure and patience badly let them down more than anything else.
He felt that this might become even more apparent when the Bulls tackle their overseas leg, although that is a little further up the drag and they have a bye weekend now to chew on their first loss in three starts.
Just a little worryingly, considering that these are still early days indeed, South African teams have already lost at home to two New Zealand opponents; this result follows the Lions falling in Johannesburg a week earlier 30-28 to the Hurricanes.
Now the only remaining unbeaten SA outfit, the Stormers can at least claim to have knocked over the Hurricanes themselves earlier at Newlands, but it was a ragged, mostly forgettable old affair.
But with the help of their automatic four bye points this weekend, the Capetonians do sit third on the overall table behind the Reds and Highlanders (each with three wins from three), and with a game in hand on them.
And they will not necessarily feel too overawed by entertaining Keven Mealamu and company on Friday night, after an ordinary encounter on the Highveld where the Blues simply made full use of opportunities that came their way -- even as the Bulls often held an edge in both possession and territory.
Certainly the discipline of the Stormers, who generally preserve their own ball more jealously than the Bulls did in this setback and have renowned defensive organisation, ought to mean that the Blues are “gifted” fewer points than they got at Loftus.
Still, this was a mini-wakeup call for the Bulls -- and perhaps also the domestic cause as a whole -- as they suffered a pronounced turnaround from their crushing victory against derby rivals the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein just a week earlier.
It demonstrated that the former champions, for all their budding new areas of potential, will experience some growing pains along the road to achieving their goal of a sparkling fresh chapter after the exit of so many influential figures last year.
On the positive side, coach Frans Ludeke will take some comfort from his charges showing last-ditch resolve to salvage a losing bonus point and, simultaneously, showing some genuinely exciting thrust out wide as they snapped out of their prior inability to get consistently over the gain-line.
Also, usually highly influential flyhalf Morne Steyn is unlikely to have such an erratic game in a while, both from a place-kicking and general-play perspective; he was at least partly responsible for the soft concession of the first try to the Blues, which got their tails up in a big way.
Meanwhile in Durban there was cause for overdue good cheer among Sharks supporters because they finally kick-started their own campaign with a bonus-point win against the Lions – remember that five-point hauls don’t exactly grow on trees in local derbies.
Whilst the Lions were beset with injury-enforced disruptions in the week’s lead-up to the game and then again much closer to kick-off on Saturday, and played with commendable courage under the circumstances, there was also enough evidence to suggest that the Durban giant is indeed beginning to stir.
The return of Willem Alberts
made a big difference to their forward grunt, where Bismarck du Plessis similarly produced a game of great endeavour and awesome physicality, and with Tim Whitehead showing some welcome deft touches at No 12 just outside the cerebral Pat Lambie, the Sharks could be on the “up” just in time for Saturday’s big visit of the defending champion Reds.
The Cheetahs, of course, are likely to be livid with the performance of referee Keith Brown in their gut-wrenching, last-kick reverse to Jake White’s Brumbies in Canberra, not without reason suspecting that there is a new “Bryce” on the officialdom block!
*This week’s fixtures (home teams first, all kick-offs in SA times):
Friday: Chiefs v Brumbies, 08:35; Stormers v Blues, 19:10. Saturday: Hurricanes v Highlanders, 08:35; Waratahs v Force, 10:40; Sharks v Reds, 17:05. Sunday: Rebels v Cheetahs, 07:10. Byes: Bulls, Lions, Crusaders.*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing