Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - South African conference leaders the Bulls had an extra reason to celebrate as the Crusaders rounded off another Super Rugby weekend on Sunday by beating the Brumbies 30-23
in their own backyard.
The result in Canberra only enhanced the Pretoria outfit’s chances of earning a coveted top-two overall finish in ordinary season, where a home semi-final is guaranteed and a potentially perilous extra knockout game ahead of that phase avoided.
While the mostly outplayed Brumbies did reasonably well to fight back grimly near the end to bank a losing bonus point, and also keep their place at the head of the overall table, the in-form Bulls are now just four points behind the Aussie pace-setters, having played 10 games to the 11 of Jake White’s charges.GALLERY: Bulls v HurricanesVIDEO: Bulls v Hurricanes, highlightsVIDEO: Brumbies v Crusaders, highlights
Both the Bulls and Brumbies (and also the awakening Crusaders further down the ladder) have a bye next weekend, meaning four further “freebie” points each as the rest scrap it out increasingly urgently on the park.
Pierre Spies and company are basking in the glow of one of their most ruthless, high-intensity performances of the season, having thrashed the Hurricanes 48-14 at Loftus to reassuringly arrest a losing trend by SA customers during the latest round.
Sunday’s outcome at Canberra Stadium may have been a favourable one for the Bulls and to some extent also the fairly high-flying Cheetahs, but it hardly helped the cause of coastal compatriots the Sharks and Stormers, whose costly, agonisingly close reverses to the Highlanders and Blues respectively have left them ominously near to also-rans for 2013.
Both remaining South African sides campaigning in Australasia had great opportunities to win their games, but the fact that they didn’t - and against a pair of New Zealand foes who hardly possess a championship aura themselves - hardly bodes well for their ongoing playoffs challenge.
They are going to have to set off on amazing winning trails from now on if they are to retain a say, and it is unlikely: the formerly very consistent Stormers cannot seem to put together more than two victories on the trot this year, whilst the Sharks are reeling from a crippling sequence of four losses in a row.
Also not helping the collective SA cause right now is the gradual withering of the Kings, who put up a strangely spineless display in being blitzed 72-10 in Port Elizabeth by the Waratahs, effectively helping to re-spark the credentials of the mid-table Aussie team.
Some consolation for all the Kings’ domestic colleagues is that they only have one remaining match against overseas opponents - the out-of-contention Highlanders next Saturday in a wooden-spoon battle - and the rest are all derbies. In current “form”, the Eastern Cape side tripping up any local rivals seems a long-shot prospect.
Especially given their prior title-winning experience, the Bulls must really be smart-money bets now to top the conference, even given that the domestic battle is far from done and dusted.
They will know that once they have played their next game in a fortnight - against the Highlanders at Loftus - a run of five uncompromising derbies then rounds off their ordinary-season programme.
Even if the Sharks and Stormers, for instance, are totally out of the playoffs picture by then, the Bulls will receive no favours from either: the challenge of former team still has to be negotiated twice by Pierre Spies and his merry men, whilst their remaining Stormers obligation is on the last day of the conference season at Newlands.
Keep in mind that over the next few weeks Springbok places for the June Test period will become an increasing factor for individuals across the conference spectrum.
But the Bulls undoubtedly boast a combination of momentum (four triumphs in a row) and verve right now: a particularly important development in their favour on Saturday was their problematic scrummaging coming together nicely and a clearly chuffed loosehead prop Dean Greyling grabbing the player-of-the-match mantle largely as a result.
The Cheetahs only have three derbies to contend with on their remaining agenda, which carries certain blessings, but they also have potentially pivotal - in an overall context - Bloemfontein matches against all of the Hurricanes, Reds and Blues.
Refreshed from a particularly welcome bye, they ought to have made useful mental notes about the ‘Canes tight-five woes at Loftus, ahead of Friday night’s meeting in the Free State metropolis.Next week’s fixtures (home teams first, all times SA):Friday:
Chiefs v Force, 09:35; Reds v Sharks, 11:40; Cheetahs v Hurricanes, 19:10. Saturday:
Blues v Rebels, 09:35; Waratahs v Stormers, 11:40; Kings v Highlanders, 17:05. Byes: Bulls, Brumbies, Crusaders.
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