Back door is Bulls’ only hope

    2014-04-29 13:23

    Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

    Cape Town – It is a very long shot, but the Bulls’ only method now of squeezing into the Super Rugby playoffs is to bank on a protracted run of late-campaign misery by pace-setting compatriots the Sharks and rack up plenty of home-turf wins themselves.

    As I suggested over the weekend, even mathematically it seems just about impossible at this stage for two South African teams to make the six-team cut: the Bulls and Lions in 10th and 11th spots respectively are just too far off the pace, whilst the minnow Cheetahs and Stormers are simply playing for pride and slightly better finishing berths in the remaining weeks of ordinary season.

    The Bulls can only get to nine wins from here even if they prevail in all six remaining games back on local soil – four at Loftus – and the history of the conference system show that 10 wins is usually the minimum requirement.

    Ironically the Lions, with an extra game in hand, could theoretically get to 11 via a seven-game charge of relentless victories – takers, anyone? – but they have no bonus points at all and simply aren’t going to make up the massive ground.

    But whilst South Africa are dead certainties by my calculation to offer only one team for the finals series – our worst tally since the advent of the new system in 2011 – I may have been a wee bit premature in saying it will inevitably be the Sharks.

    If the Durban-based outfit transfer their jaded tendency of late into their four-game overseas tour, starting against the Melbourne Rebels on Friday, then the Bulls can cheekily exploit a back-door option to a playoffs ticket: by snatching the domestic conference from under their noses.

    It would almost certainly be in the less favourable third place overall (meaning no home semi-final and an additional game ahead of the last four as well) but a Sharks tour implosion plus a really strong Bulls “second wind” back home could yet see the conference lead change hands at or near the death.

    As things stand the Sharks have a seriously sturdy, 11-point lead over the Bulls, their nearest challengers in the SA conference, and with seven games left to the Pretoria team’s six.

    But if Jake White’s charges were to suffer pretty close to the same indignity abroad as all prior South African tourists this year (bear in mind it is zero wins from 12 attempts thus far), it may just be “game on” for the conference spoils if the Bulls manage to gnaw away at that lead through contrasting success of their own in the less taxing environment back home.

    For instance, imagine if the Sharks only manage one tour victory over the next few weeks, whilst the Bulls eke out wins each time in a healthy run of all-Loftus games on the immediate radar against the Cheetahs (this Saturday), Stormers and Brumbies?

    That could close the gap quite dramatically, making for an interesting little dice to the finish after the June Test window period.

    The Bulls have been disappointingly one-dimensional on tour, but at least been competitive in every fixture, as evidenced by grabbing a losing bonus point each time – they have six bonus points to the Sharks’ three at present.

    They are traditionally a much tougher proposition at Loftus, where they also tend to play a little more expansively on the firm surface, especially when they have stamped their authority first in the engine room.

    Make no mistake, the Bulls soaring to the front of the shaky SA pile remains a tall order – don’t discount the possibility that the Sharks recapture some necessary pizzazz on tour, quickly dousing the likelihood of it happening anyway.

    The bottom line is that most South African neutrals would prefer the Sharks to prosper from here on in, given that they can still claim a treasured top-two place and thus a far less harrowing route to the main silverware.

    The Bulls, surely, can’t do it that way now?

    These are the remaining fixtures for the Sharks and Bulls:

    Sharks (31 points from nine games, first overall): Rebels (a), Brumbies (a), Crusaders (a), Blues (a), Stormers (h), Cheetahs (a), Stormers (a).

    Bulls (20 points from 10 games, 10th overall): Cheetahs (h), Stormers (h), Brumbies (h), Lions (a), Stormers (a), Rebels (h).

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

    Read More On:  bulls super 15 jake white rugby

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