Bulls fresher for Newlands?

    2012-03-25 09:56
    Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

    Cape Town - We will probably know next Saturday night just how much the peculiar, cling-to-the-trench exertions of Coca-Cola Park this week took out of the Stormers.

    It is then (19:10 kick-off) that they tackle old foes the Bulls in a mouth-watering south-versus-north derby at Newlands, spiced even further by the fact that the combatants to all intents and purposes top the overall log in Super Rugby after week five.

    The Bulls are officially fourth, but only because of the stipulation that each conference leader must be granted a top-three slot regardless of total points – meaning that the Chiefs and Brumbies are “ahead” of the Loftus-based side despite fewer points by either.

    But Pierre Spies’s outfit are a mere one point behind the Stormers, who are now the only unbeaten side in the competition after the Highlanders lost their 100 percent record to the Brumbies.

    The Bulls lost at home to the Blues recently, but have three bonus points to the Stormers’ none, which has them very hot on the heels of the Capetonians.

    After the Stormers roared into an emphatic lead in the first quarter of their Johannesburg battle with the Lions, with two tries included, they seemed odds-on to break their bonus-point duck; instead they ended up clinging on for dear life just to come out on top 24-19 against the weakened bur marvellously pumped-up hosts.

    The visitors reportedly made some 120 tackles in soaking up 50 minutes of inspiring Lions pressure – it is the sort of statistic that will certainly interest their next opponents, who had a completely contrasting walk in the park against defending champions the Reds.

    While we always knew that the Reds were going to field an unusually makeshift backline (and it showed) because of their extraordinary injury jinx and the suspension of Digby Ioane, few would have tipped the Bulls to slaughter them 61-8 and with eight tries to one.

    The home team were on the front foot almost all of the time, so they ought to travel south without nearly the sort of aches and pains afflicting various Stormers players from their own Highveld assignment.

    Remember also that the Bulls slightly more recently come off the refreshing qualities offered by a bye than the Stormers do.

    The Bulls played with great muscularity but also verve among the three-quarters against the Queenslanders, so the task of visiting the lair of last season’s best SA franchise comes at an excellent time from a confidence point of view.

    That said, anybody gloating about the Stormers’ near-comeuppance at Coca-Cola Park would be well advised to remember that playing badly and still eking out a win tends to be the hallmark of a quality team and Allister Coetzee’s charges are becoming increasingly good at prevailing in such circumstances – ones inevitable sometimes in the harsh slog Super Rugby has become.

    Even if they will have to visit the drawing board this week to probe with some urgency why they were pinned to their own territory for so long against the Lions, the Stormers will take satisfaction from their famed defensive organisation and commitment largely holding firm yet again.

    There were further ticks, too, for fresh-faced customers at this level like flank Siya Kolisi and lock Eben Etzebeth, who delivered critically whole-hearted performances while under the cosh against the Lions.

    Assuming all customers are fit, a particularly enthralling battle looms in the second row at Newlands, where the Bulls’ new “firm” of Flip van der Merwe and Juandre Kruger pit their wits against firebrand Etzebeth and Andries Bekker.

    Last season the Stormers won the away fixture between the two 23-13 but in late-season the Bulls earned revenge at Newlands with a 19-16 victory.

    Meanwhile, the travelling Sharks find themselves back under pressure to stay in the picture after some sparkling moments of their own ultimately came to nought in a heart-breaking 34-30 reverse to the Waratahs in Sydney.

    They have now lost three of five matches, heading into an important scrap with Jake White’s surprisingly high-flying Brumbies this weekend.

    John Plumtree’s outfit will be kicking themselves: every time they scored against the ‘Tahs, they seemed to immediately let the foot off the gas and allow the hosts back into the contest – their control of kick-offs was also awful at times, and detrimental in a tight match.

    With long-haul fatigue hopefully now buried, they must throw the kitchen sink once more in Canberra.

    This week’s fixtures (home teams first):

    Friday: Highlanders v Rebels. Saturday: Hurricanes v Cheetahs, Chiefs v Waratahs, Brumbies v Sharks, Force v Reds, Lions v Crusaders, Stormers v Bulls. Bye: Blues.

     *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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