Cape Town – Perhaps the time has come to finally allay all fears that the Bulls might take a couple of years to regroup in street-wisdom and composure terms after the mass departure of legendary Loftus figures last year.
The Bulls team of 2012 continues to ride much higher than some pundits might have predicted they would, following the exit of such title-winning stalwarts as Victor Matfield, Fourie du Preez, Bakkies Botha, Gurthro Steenkamp, Gary Botha and Danie Rossouw.
In grinding out a come-from-behind 27-24 victory over the Waratahs in Sydney on Friday, the supposedly rebuilding team from Pretoria again displayed a remarkable cool-headedness that has been a hallmark of their charge to the top of the South African conference in Super Rugby.
By grabbing four points from this tight, seldom spectacular encounter, after trailing at the break and then again by the advent of the 78th minute, the Bulls only entrenched their status there and put pressure on the Stormers to win again in their Saturday home derby against the Cheetahs to stay in close touch.
The Capetonians could snatch back top SA spot if they draw level with the Bulls on 46 points (by virtue of more wins) by beating the Free Staters with a bonus point – not something they have yet managed this season, mind.
Tighthead Werner Kruger’s decisive late rumble over the line made all the difference as the tourists left Australia for even tougher challenges in New Zealand – Highlanders and then Chiefs – with the satisfaction of snaring nine points from a possible 10 before crossing the ditch.
The Bulls certainly won’t give the proverbial continental that Phil Kearns, that dyed-in-the-wool former ‘Tahs stalwart and TV commentator, clearly gutted that the home side had let this one slip, implied immediately afterwards that the Australian outfit (now almost certainly out of the playoffs picture) had been unfortunate.
Especially when you are abroad in this competition, you make your own luck wherever you can.
And if the Bulls weren’t as potent as an attacking factor as they had been in two or three games ahead of this one, you had to laud them for the way they largely redressed their defensive shortcomings.
That was in spite of ominously leaking a 16th minute try to Rob Horne when the centre cut the opposition midfield defence to ribbons and waltzed over beneath the posts.
But that composure I mentioned earlier was much in evidence again from the Bulls, and captain Pierre Spies got it right when he described the triumph as “an awesome effort right into the last five minutes”.
There were plenty of imperfections in the Bulls’ game, let it be said, with an annoying basic-error count at times, whilst their scrum took a fair bit of heat – they still give away engagement penalties too easily – and they will be only too happy to welcome back first-choice loosehead Dean Greyling after a week’s approved leave for the birth of his son.
Rather like compatriots the Stormers, loose forward injury woes continue to play some havoc – luckless fetcher Deon Stegmann, just back after several weeks on the sidelines, left the park with an arm injury in the 33rd minute after a fairly promising comeback appearance.
But young replacement Arno Botha, not for the first time of late, brought useful energy into the fray and it was certainly a day where everyone in the pack willingly did their open-play donkeywork, even as the set-pieces served up some difficulties.
Strong influencers of the win were the halfback combination of Morne Steyn, who again kicked flawlessly off the tee and almost as convincingly out of hand, and Francois Hougaard, who was terrifically committed in the tackle, gave his partner a crisp service and showed staggering leg strength as a ball-carrier who might easily have been mistaken for a loose forward.
In one such instance, in the first half, he basically bumped off both Benn Robinson and Rocky Elsom, gnarly veterans of the Waratahs’ eight, in bulldozing his way over for a try.
Bjorn Basson was a model of professionalism on the left wing, including his customary, uncanny ability at fielding high balls ... it is hard to think of another back-three player comparable in that particular facet right now.
As for the Waratahs, things do not get any easier as they must now fly to South Africa to take on the Stormers next weekend at Newlands, with concerns over the fitness of forceful No 8 Cliffie Palu as he was forced off crocked against the Bulls.*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing