Bulls fire early derby warning

2015-01-31 22:26
WP v Blue Bulls (Gallo Images)
Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

Cape Town – It seldom takes much to light the old north-south fuse anyway, but the Super Rugby derby opener between the Bulls and Stormers in a fortnight shows all the signs of being an especially hard-as-nails affair.

Under-achievers in 2014 – Bulls ninth and Stormers 11th – each outfit are targeting far bigger things this year and solid starts to the campaign will be a key aspect off that quest.

But something will almost certainly have to give in the first-round meeting at Loftus ... and on the evidence of reasonably educative respective friendlies this weekend, there will be little budging from either on the day.

The Bulls probably made the more threatening statement of the two by travelling to an icy London and seeing off a Saracens side, sporting the advantage of mid-season sharpness, by the comfortable margin of 39-26 and six tries to four on Saturday.

A day earlier at Newlands, the Stormers had beaten domestic rivals the Cheetahs 39-31, even if they will already be sweating over injuries sustained by locks Eben Etzebeth and Manuel Carizza plus strong-striding right wing Kobus van Wyk.

In each instance, the winning sides based their triumphs around aggressive, mauling forward play and in-your-face defence, so in many ways the looming derby could see the proverbial irresistible force coming up against an immovable object.

At Allianz Park, the Bulls were described by one of the English television commentators as a “glacial blue line”, so forceful were they in collision-based aspects which did more than anything to knock the wind from Sarries’ sails.

While it was true that the hosts, still vying for the joint lures of the Premiership and European Champions Cup trophies, put out a significantly weakened initial XV – the Bulls also began below optimum strength on paper – Saracens still boasted such earthy individuals in their pack as Ernst Joubert, Kelly Brown and Scottish second row meanie Jim Hamilton, and a hugely streetwise halfback combo in Neil de Kock and Charlie Hodgson.

So do not under-estimate the zeal and even some good doses of polish demonstrated by the Bulls, clearly intent on hitting the ground running when Super Rugby gets underway.

The foundations were certainly laid by the huge physicality in open play of their pack, but the Pretoria-based team also showed promising continuity in phase-building terms and their outside backs punched timely holes through the Saracens defence – the Bulls do look as if they genuinely want to move away to a good extent from their old, conservative approach punctuated by repetitive heaves of the ball into the sky.

It was a collective effort, but if you had to single out individuals for special praise then repositioned No 4 lock Jacques du Plessis – the hulking athlete was almost exclusively a blindside flank last season – and loose forwards Lappies Labuschagne and Hanro Liebenberg would fall into that category.

The Bulls have a pleasant problem looming in shaping their start-out loose trio to face the Stormers, if you add in the claims of active-again Springboks Arno Botha and Pierre Spies and also their primary fetcher Deon Stegmann who led the troops in London.

Liebenberg, still an under-20 player, was a bit of a revelation against Sarries at No 8, working his socks off for the 56 minutes he was on the park – including crashing over for a try -- until Spies made his long-awaited appearance off the bench following a lengthy injury gap.

It didn’t take the intended captain for the campaign long to make his mark, either, as Spies loomed up only four minutes into his deployment to collect an inside pass out wide and romp over for his own five-pointer.

Is it a foregone conclusion, though, that Spies will be ready to begin against the Bulls’ big rivals from the Cape, and in doing so go straight into both a leadership and positional head-to-head with incumbent Bok eighthman Duane Vermeulen?

Liebenberg, who as a Drostdy High schoolboy once listed the very Vermeulen as his favourite player, could just be a daring ace up coach Frans Ludeke’s sleeve in the derby if he is not yet convinced of Spies’s ability to last the pace of a high-stakes Super Rugby clash.

Perhaps the lone worrisome aspect of the Bulls’ victory over Sarries was their shakiness at scrum-time, a bogey that has afflicted them for several seasons – and a department where the Stormers by contrast excelled against the Cheetahs.

Starting hooker Callie Visagie spent rather too much time with his head “popped” during the set-pieces, with tighthead prop Werner Kruger penalised a few times under pressure.

Once Kruger was taken off, replacement Marcel van der Merwe offered some evidence of better stability, but he quickly seemed a victim of an accidental, friendly-fire boot to a knee from team-mate Piet van Zyl and had to withdraw himself ...

 *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing


Read more on:    bulls  |  stormers  |  jacques potgieter  |  eben etzebeth  |  rugby


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