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
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 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
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
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
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 ...
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