Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – The South African-based three-time past champions against defending title holders from New Zealand who are on the hunt for a hat-trick in 2014.
That is the appealing clash awaiting the Loftus faithful next Saturday (15:00), when the thoroughly resurgent Bulls – three from three at their home ground this season – entertain the Chiefs.
It is arguably the prime fixture of the weekend, even if the later game in the 17:05 slot is a decent one too as the Sharks attempt to get back on the bicycle very quickly against strong Australian outfit the Waratahs.
Bismarck du Plessis and company stay top of the overall table despite suffering a first defeat in five games at the hands of the Bulls in Pretoria.
As the skipper said afterwards, it was “not a train smash” as you simply don’t win week after endless week in this competition, and the Sharks were badly hampered by early injury setbacks to both their No 9 and 10, Cobus Reinach and Pat Lambie respectively.
That said, the Bulls were excellent value for their 23-19 triumph, which turned around the thumping 31-16 reverse in the first-round derby meeting at Kings Park a few weeks ago.
They had received a setback of their own when captain Flip van der Merwe pulled out two days ahead of the derby, although wise old hand Victor Matfield steered the ship typically astutely in his place and second-row replacement Paul Willemse stepped into the No 4 shirt brilliantly.
If the Sharks and Chiefs are perhaps still the best bets as title-grabbers this year, it is “as we were” between them in the latest round: the Waikato outfit also picked up a losing bonus point in a shock loss to the currently over-achieving Force in Perth, en route to South Africa.
It meant that the Sharks retained a five-point lead over the champions, even if the Chiefs retain a game in hand and, for the time being, have slipped to fifth.
So what result would Jake White desire in this week’s big Loftus match-up? Ideally, perhaps, a low-scoring draw with just two log points each!
But that sort of outcome hardly comes every day, so you have to suspect a Bulls win over the New Zealanders would be deemed preferable by him, even if it will pull the Highveld team even closer to the Sharks in the SA conference should the Sharks slip up again when the side from Sydney come to Durban.
Those mighty surprise packages, the Lions, presently lie above the Bulls in second on the conference, although they have a well-earned bye in the next round and, with a two-point cushion after one extra game, will be hauled in by the Loftus-based side if they beat the Chiefs.
Although the Chiefs will be smarting from their hiccup against the Force and hell-bent on restoring normal service, history strongly favours the Bulls against these particular opponents in Pretoria: the Chiefs last won there 49-37 in 2001, when the hosts were a “nowhere” sort of side.
Since then it has been six straight Bulls wins in succession, including that 61-17 roasting of the Chiefs in the 2009 final.
Pleasingly, although this hasn’t yet seemed a vintage sort of season for the collective South African challenge in Super Rugby – the Cheetahs and Stormers have been bitterly disappointing and hold the two basement slots overall – the table currently sees three SA sides in the top six, which is where the finals series teams are eventually drawn from.
The Sharks looked a little flat against the Bulls, but will expect to lift their game with the benefit of a return to “Fortress Kings Park” to tackle the ‘Tahs.
After that match they have another bye, and then still three matches on local soil (Cheetahs and Highlanders at home, Lions away) before they go abroad – they won’t want many more slip-ups in the interim period.
Expect a backlash over refereeing throughout the SANZAR landscape over the next few days: both the Cheetahs and Stormers have some grievances about their treatment in latest losses overseas, whilst Reds captain James Horwill had a face like thunder and struggled to stay diplomatic in the immediate post-match interview after local official Stuart Berry just about blew them off the park in the second half of their defeat to the Lions.
Even some South African critics – the articulate, forthright Nick Mallett just one – sensed injustice toward the Australians at Ellis Park.
Still, with that in mind, take nothing away from the Lions for the grit they showed again in a powerful comeback after they had seemed all but buried in the first period: they are sitting unexpectedly pretty with four wins from six starts.
Next round of matches (home teams first, all kickoffs SA time):
Friday: Crusaders v Hurricanes, 08:35; Rebels v Brumbies, 10:40. Saturday: Blues v Highlanders, 08:35; Reds v Stormers, 10:40; Bulls v Chiefs, 15:00; Sharks v Waratahs, 17:05. Byes: Cheetahs, Lions, Force.
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