Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – While it stays at this stage a game with very little relevance to the 2014 title race, Saturday’s Super Rugby showdown between the Bulls and Stormers at Loftus ought to get the old “north-south” juices flowing almost as much as ever.
It comes as both protagonists can boast a mini-upturn in fortunes, the consequence of praiseworthy home victories in the latest round over the Cheetahs and Highlanders respectively.
Certainly the fixture looks a lot less lame on the calendar than it did a couple of weeks back, when the Bulls came back winless from their four-match overseas leg and the slowly regrouping, remodelling Stormers were still suffering the teething problems associated with a different philosophy and some new faces in the management hierarchy.
The happiest aspect for all South Africans about the victories recorded by these proud old foes at the weekend was the manner in which they were achieved: the Stormers registered a desperately rare four-try bonus point in edging out their Dunedin-based guests in a 29-28 cliff-hanger, whilst the Bulls mixed up their game far more consciously than had been the case in Australasia and finally made allowance for some sprightly hand-to-hand fare against the Free Staters.
Whether the spirit of adventure will spill over into the derby (19:10 kick-off) remains to be seen, because most domestic clashes of this nature tend to be much closer to bruising arm-wrestles that make people like Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer
anxious, even as his June international plans increasingly take shape.
But the respective sets of fans will contemplate the showdown in a far brighter mood now, albeit that it seems strange and more than a little unfortunate that the first of the two obligatory meetings comes after each side has already played 10 or 11 matches and only one – the Bulls – can be considered to have some lingering, outsider interest in cracking the playoffs.
Because the overall log-leading and comfortably conference-heading Sharks also pleasingly banked four points from their tour opener against the Rebels on Friday, the Bulls made no headway against their compatriots in terms of the quest to chip away at their handsome lead.Jake White
’s charges still rule the SA roost by a distance: they boast 35 points from 10 matches to the Bulls’ 24 from 11 (and still a distant 10th overall), so time is running desperately short for Victor Matfield
and company to make up the ground.
But the hardest part of the Sharks’ quartet of games overseas kicks in now, with the Brumbies, Crusaders and Blues in that order – all fellow finals series aspirants – providing potentially pivotal influences in the KZN side’s chase for maiden silverware.
The Bulls, always so much steelier in their home environment, will be more than aware of the steep away hurdles the Sharks face for three weeks on the trot, and it is not as though the side led by Bismarck du Plessis are playing particularly compelling, “championship” rugby at the moment.
So the Bulls’ mission will be to knock over their Capetonian arch-rivals, not just for the automatic, special satisfaction of doing so but also to keep their long-shot playoff hopes alive.
For their part the Stormers, while still an uncharacteristic 14th on the overall table, will seek to continue their “brave new world” by bagging another noteworthy scalp – and a win at Loftus would possibly boost their log position by two or three notches if other results next weekend go their way.
For example, they are now within spitting distance of another domestic rival, the fading Lions: they were predictably thumped by the Chiefs in their first fixture abroad and are only a point ahead of the Stormers as they await the return of the Highlanders to Dunedin from South Africa.
The Cheetahs should not feel too down about their pretty narrow loss in Pretoria, and can do the Sharks a good favour on Saturday if they defeat the Force, one of several teams not terribly far off the log-leaders – they are eight points shy of the Sharks but with a game in hand over them.
There are hopeful signs of some SA sides turning a corner after a few weeks of turgid performances and dour game-plans.
Bulls v Stormers? Bring it on ...
*Next weekend’s fixtures (home teams first, all kick-offs SA time):
Friday: Chiefs v Blues, 09:35; Rebels v Hurricanes, 11:40. Saturday: Highlanders v Lions, 09:35; Brumbies v Sharks, 11:40; Cheetahs v Force, 17:05; Bulls v Stormers, 19:10. Sunday: Reds v Crusaders, 08:05. Bye: Waratahs.*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing