Cape Town - When Western Province and the Blue Bulls announce their respective teams later this week for Saturday’s Currie Cup semi-final at Newlands, those who remember their tussles of the late 1970s and earliest 1980s may detect certain similarities.
Back then, when the north v south rivalry was as intense as it is today - and then some, in fact, as Test rugby was far less a feature of the landscape and more parochial issues ruled - WP sides relied more on stealth and flair to try to win the grudge encounters, whilst the Bulls pinned their faith in a juggernaut pack and the then-youthful assertiveness with the boot of a certain Naas Botha.
The Bulls tended to be favourites most of the time, as evidenced by their strong monopoly on trophy-landing success in the era, and it was only when Jan “Bull” Pickard became Province’s president that the balance of power shifted to a massive extent between 1982 and 1986 as his side famously won the cup every time.
Pickard could almost have been described as a pioneer of professional rugby, in some senses, because he recognised a need to beef up the WP forward cupboard: when the likes of Theuns Stofberg, Henning van Aswegen, Andre Markgraaff and later Gert Smal migrated south, it certainly wasn’t unanimously because these supposed amateurs had been “transferred by their businesses”.
There’s a notable new kid on the No 10 block in South Africa right now, of course, in 20-year-old Handre Pollard, likely to be influential in the Bulls’ plans for a relative upset this weekend whether he is stationed in his most familiar position or (because of injury issues at Loftus) one slot wider at inside centre.
But also in the all-important engine room, the Bulls class of 2014 will represent something of a throwback to the heyday of Moaner van Heerden, Louis Moolman, Daan du Plessis and company as they are very likely to eclipse Province for bulk and general grunt in the tight exchanges.
Their Currie Cup pack of the present, operating in an environment where Super Rugby now contains greater gravitas, is arguably less dominant and revered a force than the Loftus-based equivalent of all those years ago, under the coaching stewardship of late Brigadier Buurman van Zyl, but there are still some rugged and talented individuals in the arsenal.
For instance, second-row behemoth Paul Willemse, who stands 2m tall and tips the scales at 125kg-plus, will be hell-bent on ending the Currie Cup with a bang, given that the former Baby Bok star is regrettably off to French pastures after completion of domestic business this year.
The Bulls tight five should also sport the in-form loosehead prop Dean Greyling, a slightly forgotten Springbok who is still only 28 and, in recent weeks has added fresh conviction to his scrummaging to accompany his known ball-in-hand aggression and no-frills tackling.
At some 128kg, the slightly yellow card-prone customer will be easily the biggest front-ranker on view if WP take the expected route of naming Ali Vermaak (110kg) and Pat Cilliers, who will surrender about 15kg on the scales in his direct scrum tussle with Greyling, as their props.
Another notably big unit is the visitors’ regular blindside flank in this campaign, Jacques du Plessis, who will also have major ball-carrying responsibility even if the strapping 21-year-old perhaps still needs to add some subtlety to his game if he is to challenge for higher honours.
The Bulls’ overall rugby principles haven’t changed that much over the past few decades, when you think about: a pack that is intent on “sagmaak” and a conservative, fairly kick-heavy tactical approach from the halfback and back-three combination, especially, to supplement it.
It is debatable in a modern rugby context whether that route is a sure-fire method to prevent dust from penetrating trophy cabinets, but what cannot be disputed is that after a sterile first half of their Currie Cup, the Bulls are on a three-game winning streak (including particularly clear-cut ones away to the Pumas and at home to Griquas last weekend) and adding some backline verve at last to their muscle at close quarters.
By contrast WP, particularly as this season’s knockout run-in disallows them from featuring hard-man Springboks like Eben Etzebeth and the presently rampant Duane Vermeulen, have undergone something of a flashback to their “run everything” template of the days when they all too noticeably fed off scraps of primary possession.
There will be men amidst their 2014 crop quick to protest, perhaps even indignantly, any suggestion of a retreat to 1970s-like levels of forward frailty - certainly you wouldn’t press that case too strongly under the noses of Messrs Rynhardt Elstadt, Michael Rhodes or the big-hearted and feverishly industrious Nizaam Carr and Scarra Ntubeni.
WP-inclined folk will also be swift to remind that it is not always about the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the heart in the dog, while it should also be kept in mind that the home eight may expect to outgun their Bulls rivals for mobility, collective skills and a more efficient breakdown game.
Yet once we see those team sheets, older observers may well find it hard to resist revisiting memories of the vastly differing philosophies when these adversaries clashed in good (or was it bad?) ole ’78 and ’79 ...
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