Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - It may be more of a question of who burns up the quickest rather than who genuinely takes charge when old enemies the Bulls and Stormers square up in a key Super Rugby derby in Pretoria on Saturday (kick-off is at 19:10).GALLERY: Best sporting pics from the past weekendVIDEO: Beast Mtawarira displays incredible strength
The match comes in the 15th week of a competition that was regarded as gruelling even before its shift to the conference system last year and a dauntingly stretched itinerary as a result.
To extend the “Survivor SA” sort of theme, it is also scheduled immediately before new Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer names his squad for the first of three Tests against England, only placing further pressure on many of the combatants to somehow perform to optimum capability.
Unless certain players have received the proverbial quiet word in advance as to whether they will be part of the Bok plans or not, the north-south clash will serve as a final national trial to some extent – even given that the Bok mastermind probably has a strong idea already of which soldiers he favours.
It seems there will be fewer customers from the conference-leading Stormers than from either of the Sharks or Bulls in the Bok party, but a couple of head-to-head clashes could possibly yet sway Meyer’s Bok barometer.
One department that springs most forcefully to mind is the second row, for instance, where the likely Bulls pair of Flip van der Merwe and Juandre Kruger (if the latter is restored to a start at the expense of Wilhelm Steenkamp this week) come up against the media-favoured international combo of Andries Bekker and youthful but consistently stellar Eben Etzebeth.
If the Bulls pack were to collectively eclipse their Stormers counterparts at Loftus, with the locks prominent in such a scenario, the home pair’s greater knowledge of Meyer’s philosophy and tactical systems from his string-pulling time in their camp could swing sentiment ahead of the announcement.
These teams, on a more collective scale, lock horns at a time when neither can exactly be described as being on a roll, despite both being very well in the frame for favourable playoffs spots.
The Stormers have a two-point advantage over the Bulls as things stand, after 12 games each, but come off fairly grimly-compiled home wins over the Cheetahs and the Waratahs and then Saturday’s rather more clear-cut Durban loss to the Sharks than the scoreboard showed.
Their second reverse of the campaign did little to quell a suspicion that the Cape team is mentally and physically jaded after many weeks of having to eke out victories rather than deliver proper “KO” punches to several opponents.
But what of the Bulls? If it is any consolation to Saturday’s looming foes, it is not the worst time to be taking them on in their Highveld stronghold - straight off their Antipodean tour - even if it will be before a mostly hostile full house.
The three-times champions have just suffered rare, consecutive defeats, even if both of their final overseas fixtures in New Zealand, against the Highlanders and Chiefs, were close tussles that might have gone the other way with some luck.
They have had to make a particularly long haul back from the Land of the Long White Cloud for this derby, not having had the luxury some compatriot teams do these days of ending against the Force on the west coast of Australia, where the voyage back is shorter and thus not across as many time zones.
The Bulls did finish last year’s Australasian tour against the very Force in Perth, where they lost 26-21, but bounced back quite commendably in their first return game on home soil a week later, thumping the Chiefs 43-27.
In 2010, when the competition was still a shorter Super 14, the Bulls, later to become champions by beating the Stormers in the Soweto final, also lost their final match abroad 19-12 to the Reds in Brisbane, but again struck right back to demolish the Lions 51-11 at Loftus.
The last time the Bulls lost a Loftus game straight after their overseas leg, in fact, was in 2008, a forgettable season for them generally (10th-placed finishers) - they were thrashed 50-22 by the Hurricanes.
So they do have the comfort of knowing that they tend not to suffer from a damaging “tour hangover” in recent times when returning to local duty ...Remaining games for the three SA Conference challengers:
Stormers (played 12, 50 points): Bulls (a), Lions (h), Cheetahs (a), Rebels (h).
Bulls (played 12, 48 points): Stormers (h), Cheetahs (h), Sharks (a), Lions (h).
Sharks (played 13, 45 points): Lions (a), bye, Bulls (h), Cheetahs (h).*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing