Bulls suddenly favourites?

2010-10-11 06:43

 Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

Cape Town - The Blue Bulls may have ended fourth and will not see any knockout action at their beloved Loftus, yet they are arguably narrow favourites as the Absa Currie Cup semi-final line-up was determined on Saturday.

A gripping last three weeks is in the offing - there is a “rest” weekend between the semis and the October 30 showpiece - with the same teams as last season having reached the last four.

Again the Sharks and Western Province have finished first and second respectively for the right to lucrative home ties, although third and fourth place change in 2010 as the Cheetahs have leapfrogged the Bulls this time.

It sets up a particularly appetising, juggernaut encounter between the Durban-based side and defending champions the Bulls (14:30 on Saturday), with Province hosting the Cheetahs at Newlands (17:00).

While it is tempting to suggest that WP may have the “easier” task before their raucous home faithful, they will be mindful of the fact that it was only a few weeks ago, in late August, that they slipped on a banana peel by crashing 29-24 to those very foes in the shadow of Table Mountain.

And the Cheetahs deserve only highest praise for the way they continually qualify for the knockout phase despite having their talent pool plundered just as often by richer, big-city unions.

Still, bookies ought to install them as least likely winners – and this kind of thing often suits Juan Smith and company just fine – with a lot of head-scratching around which of the other three offer best credentials for the trophy now.

My crystal ball begins to suggest that the Bulls, despite the admittedly difficult route for them, are sprightliest candidates considering their modern “been there, done that” track record in major competitions.

While it is true that they flirted with non-qualification at various stages of this year’s Currie Cup round-robin, being deprived of more senior Springboks than other teams was a very key consideration.

The ease with which their heavyweights like Victor Matfield, Bakkies Botha and Danie Rossouw reintegrated into the system against Griquas in Kimberley – a potentially tricky game which they won more comfortably than the scoreline indicates on Saturday – stands them in good stead for the Sharks showdown.

The current Bulls crop are not especially afraid of leaving their Pretoria fortress to secure important victories, and several of their ranks will still harbour fond memories of that dramatic Super 14 title pinch at Absa Stadium in 2007.

Also in their favour, perhaps, is the Sharks losing some momentum in Saturday’s rather clear-cut 33-21 reverse to a suitably fired-up WP side.

It was three tries all but that was a mightily deceptive statistic: Province genuinely “fronted up” here after successive Durban defeats to the Sharks in the Super 14 and Currie Cup this year, when they were notably out-muscled each time, and seldom looked like playing second fiddle.

This time the boot was on the other foot as that amazing specimen Schalk Burger returned to gee up the entire WP eight after his compulsory conditioning stint with various other Boks.

By his own admission, the Province captain way prefers the big match to the bench press, and he looked as if he had never been away, also coaxing a hugely imposing all-round performance out of loose forward colleague Duane Vermeulen – surely a must for the heavy pitches of Europe in national colours in a few weeks’ time?

Allister Coetzee and the rest of the WP brains trust deserve a bouquet, too, for making some of their hotly-debated selections work: Ricky Januarie will never be the perfect scrumhalf but he got in people’s faces for a productive hour before Dewaldt Duvenage offered fresh legs, while Jean de Villiers delivered a strong performance at right wing, although he was cleverly worked into more familiar midfield territory at times as well.

All that said, this was always going to be a difficult day for the Sharks, already assured of top spot and thus unlikely to achieve maximum motivational levels no matter how hard they may have tried.

They have not ended top of the table without valid reason, and wunderkind Patrick Lambie, who missed a tackle on De Villiers in the lead-up to a late try and generally could not assert himself greatly on play, was probably due a relative off-day.

The sight of Bismarck du Plessis limping off towards the end would not have been a welcome sight for coach John Plumtree; the combative hooker will be needed in the quest to halt the running of the Bulls next week.

Dream scenario for WP now, of course, is to topple the Cheetahs and bank on a Bulls triumph in Durban to set up a Newlands final - the first since 2001.

Yet those wily, uncompromising Bulls are only two hurdles from retention of the Currie Cup.

I suspect they will take some stopping, as usual …