Cape Town – The Blue Bulls have stolen a march on defending champions Western Province in more than just log-position terms in early Currie Cup rounds this season.
Their crowd-pleasing brand of rugby not only has them riding high, alongside near-neighbours the Golden Lions, with maximum points each from four matches, but also boasting a way superior try strike rate at this stage to their old southern foes.
Under the first-time tutelage of Nollis Marais, the Bulls have determinedly put to pasture the conservative, structures-based style that was a hallmark of Frans Ludeke’s closing year or two in charge, and reinvented themselves for champagne, 15-man attacking play at a tempo few would have expected to occur.
They are the top try-scorers as the round-robin phase prepares to reach the halfway mark this weekend with a pleasing 21; that is an average of 5.25 per game.
The rather distant, yet still third-placed Province (10 points adrift of the leading pair) can at least boast that they have conceded no more than the same tally of tries (11) as the Loftus-based crew, but when you look at the Capetonians’ “tries for” column things look rather less flattering for WP.
They have only registered 10 themselves, so that is more than 50 percent below the number achieved by the Bulls, for whom lean and hungry wing Jamba Ulengo leads the individual charge nationwide with six of his own.
This is bound to have caused one of those dissatisfied frowns on the face of WP’s director of rugby Gert Smal, who must be wondering quite how and why the Bulls have managed to “out-Province” his troops for entertainment value in the last few weeks.
Remember that a big, acknowledged drive when Smal took the hot seat at Newlands was his desire to recreate an exciting brand of rugby within a franchise that had been winning considerably more matches than losing them at all levels under the lengthy stewardship of Allister Coetzee, but too often in a relatively unlovable manner.
New WP coach John Dobson has experienced a pretty rough ride since assuming the tracksuit from Coetzee: after a sprightly enough opening-round victory in Kimberley, they have had three rather grim, shoddy performances on the trot.
They did at least eke out a desperately tight win (9-3) when they played Free State in the Newlands slush, but then they were near-slaughtered at Loftus (47-29) and the expected backlash, worryingly, failed to materialise a week later when they were outsmarted 28-21 in the return Cheetahs clash in Bloemfontein.
Just at present, Province seem caught betwixt and between in ideological approach, though a personal suspicion is that a certain complacency among players has taken temporary root in the camp, rather than any especially confusing messages or spanner-in-works tactics coming from their intelligent young coach.
As Currie Cup champions and South Africa’s conference winners in Super Rugby even more recently, perhaps a subconscious, foolhardy belief has occurred that WP simply have to take to the pitch to win.
Their forwards are just not hunting as a committed, cohesive “pack”, if you will pardon the cliché, although their cause hasn’t been helped by someone like Oliver Kebble, the strong-scrumming and fierce-driving loosehead prop, being struck down by injury of late; he had been one of few highly-touted names to produce the goods with proper urgency and zest at the outset of the competition.
You have to get your basics right before you can run the ball with any fluency, and WP have looked sloppy at lineout time and occasionally gormless and unbalanced, in truth, at the breakdown.
The one thing in their favour is that many in their fold have simply been under-delivering to known best standards, and if they collectively catch the proverbial wakeup quickly – starting against Griquas at home this weekend – WP can still challenge strongly for cup retention, even if the knockout route may now have to be a tougher one for them.
But if Province really should get back on the horse with some comfort this weekend, there’s little reason to believe the Bulls won’t continue on their own merry way – all that’s still absent is a reliable scrum -- when they entertain the Cheetahs in Pretoria on Friday night.
The Bulls have benefited quite substantially from the infusion of a couple of Bok “discards”, perhaps smarting after failing to make the cut for the UK.
Big Marcel van der Merwe, who played tigerishly at tighthead in the Buenos Aires triumph over Argentina before getting the chop, should help to stabilise the set-piece, whilst it is a reflection of their broad backline lustre that Jan Serfontein only filters back via the bench this weekend.
Coach Marais cannot be blamed for not wishing to tamper too much with the good thing going amongst his three-quarters.
There is just no way, for instance, that stripping Burger Odendaal of inside centre duty would be the correct course of action at present ...
This weekend’s fixtures (home teams first):
Friday: Blue Bulls v Cheetahs, 19:10. Saturday: Sharks v Pumas, 15:00; WP v Griquas, 17:05; Golden Lions v EP Kings, 19:10.
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