Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - Given a serious taste of their own, confrontational medicine by a pumped-up Sharks team on Friday night, the Bulls have some soul-searching to do if they are to make much progress in the Super Rugby finals series.
First they have to just get to the playoffs, of course, although common sense suggests they ought to be capable of seeing off ailing neighbours the Lions at Loftus, probably even with a bonus point if it is needed in the final round of ordinary season next Saturday night.
It is the very last fixture ahead of the playoffs phase, so the Bulls will be in the advantageous position of knowing exactly what they have to do in the Highveld derby.
As things stand, there is a heartening chance of three South African teams making the six-team finals series, although overseas travel for “qualifiers” ahead of the semis is highly likely for both the Bulls, currently lying fifth, and the sixth-placed Sharks.
Both teams will definitely make the playoffs cut if they earn victories with four tries against the Lions and Cheetahs (at Mr Price Kings Park) respectively.
The Stormers, still with an outstanding game in the current round against the Cheetahs (Bloemfontein, 15:00), are increasingly likely to have the luxury of a ticket straight into a home semi.
The Bulls lie above the Sharks on the basis of a superior “for and against” differential (plus-86 to the Durban team’s plus-69) although they are level on log points and also on total wins: nine each.
Ironically the dubious “reward” for the Bulls being marginally ahead, if the situation stays that way after next weekend’s round, would be a probable trip to play the seven-times champion Crusaders in Christchurch, whilst the Sharks (assuming they’ve also cracked the playoffs nod) look destined to tackle the Brumbies in Canberra.
With all due respect to the remarkable work Jake White has done to make the Brumbies so competitive this season, everyone knows which game abroad both the Bulls and Sharks would prefer if the league table ends as it should.
Of the two SA sides with the likely stiffer passages to the semis, it is the Bulls who appear to have greater problems on their hands anyway after the manner in which they were bludgeoned 32-10 by the Sharks before an ecstatic Durban faithful.
Momentum starts to play an increasingly important role at this stage of the campaign, and Bulls fans’ best hope now, it seems, is that they’ve hit a “low” over the course of several weeks and the only way is thus up.
Several weeks ago the Bulls were chugging along rather nicely, a big threat to the Stormers’ quest to top the local conference again as they started their overseas leg with respective wins in Australia against the Waratahs and Rebels.
But since May 19, when they were stopped in their tracks 16-11 by the Highlanders in Dunedin, they have largely been on a pronounced slide: the Bulls have surrendered four of their last five games, in all, a sequence interrupted only by last weekend’s high-tempo 40-24 disposal of the Cheetahs at Loftus.
Even there, certain danger signs were apparent as a commendable 40-0 advantage well into the second half lost much lustre - the Cheetahs roared back for four unanswered tries.
Again on Friday night the Bulls leaked a quartet of tries as the Sharks banked a crucial bonus point for their cherry on top of a dominating performance, with Ryan Kankowski a revelation for his overall zest, and ability to cause some havoc with the Bulls’ lineout plans - normally an area of undoubted strength.
The Bulls are generally not having too much trouble scoring tries (46) themselves, although they have now conceded 36, which is more than any other team among the current top seven on the overall table so the chalk board may need to be brought out by Frans Ludeke to examine their defensive structure and execution.
Their scrummaging ego took a bad knock in Durban, and once again in a match where the Bulls find themselves unusually back-pedalling, prominent Springboks like their captain Pierre Spies seemed to go suspiciously absent without leave.
To his credit, Spies did pull off one excellent cover tackle on a flying Timmy Whitehead, the Sharks outside centre, but it will be a concern to supporters and observers of the national team that for “80-minute effort” the big man came up pretty short at No 8 once more.
All that said, the Bulls do remain South Africa’s most successful franchise in Super Rugby with their three titles, travel rather better than they used to, and should not quite be written off as title contenders just yet.
They are bound to feel a whole lot better about life again if they thump the Lions, perhaps suddenly believing that the timing of their run is falling into place - Super Rugby is funny like that, isn’t it?*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing