Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - So much seems to be in the Bulls’ favour for
their Super Rugby clash against the basement Highlanders at Loftus on Saturday
(17:05), as the Pretoria-based outfit seek to take a really formidable grip on
the SA conference.
Their now lone realistic challengers for supremacy in the
group, the Cheetahs, have a far trickier task at home to the impressive Reds in
the later kick-off at Bloemfontein (19:10) and also come off a disappointing,
potentially very damaging defeat to the visiting Hurricanes.
What’s more, the Highlanders appear to have slipped back
into bad old ways after being deservedly beaten by fellow overall strugglers
the Kings in Port Elizabeth, making it nine losses from 10 starts for the
severely under-delivering men from Dunedin - not a great statistic to carry to
the unwelcoming environment of Pretoria and a showdown with a side on a
four-game winning streak.
Everything points, certainly on paper, to the Bulls securing
another victory in front of the faithful at their Highveld fortress, and
although this is that stage of the season where just winning is considered
manna from heaven, expect coach Frans Ludeke and his aides to be quietly
contemplating a four-try bonus point as well.
The thinking is sure to be: if the Kings can bank a full
house against these foes, then so can we.
Keep in mind that the Bulls are still slightly less
favourably placed, purely in terms of total points amassed so far, for a key
home semi-final at present than the respective leaders of the other
conferences, the Brumbies and Chiefs (although the Bulls have played one game
fewer than both, the defending champions from Waikato still have a useful four-point
bye bonanza ahead).
So every extra point that can be eked out at this juncture
could spell the difference between a comfortable, all-domestic journey to a
possible final or an extra playoffs match and potential semi abroad.
Apart from the Kings’ welcome fury and intensity to down the
Highlanders on Saturday, the latest round was otherwise a bit of a bloodbath
for the SA “challenge”, with the Sharks and Stormers now needing fairytales to
happen if they are to make the knockout-phase cut.
Under the circumstances, it was probably an ideal weekend
for the Bulls to sit back and safely bank their quartet of bye points.
Or was it?
A theory doing the rounds to an increasing extent -
certainly television commentators keep pointing to it - is that an “off”
weekend isn’t quite the magic potion it is cut out to be.
Yes, it is obviously a massively welcome respite from a
Super Rugby schedule that is dangerously brutal and could have consequences for
the southern hemisphere’s collective challenge at the next World Cup in England
in 2015 (not just my view; ask a few concerned franchise bosses).
But what the bye seems to do at times is lure teams into a
dangerous sort of complacency immediately after it, where they seemingly
subconsciously assume that the rejuvenation factor alone will be enough to power
them to victory.
So far this season, if you exclude the first round of the
competition where only two all-Aussie matches took place, teams returning from
byes have won 10 times, and lost on nine occasions: surprisingly close to a
50-50 record despite weekend layoffs supposedly bringing big benefits.
The Cheetahs are just the latest side to fail to cash in
straight afterwards on a bye, looking short of a gallop at times during the
reverse to the ‘Canes and making some crucial tactical mistakes along the way.
It seems that a fortnight away from your tried-and-trusted
script can carry strange, rhythm-affecting curses?
Still, some comfort for the Bulls is that they didn’t fall
into the Cheetahs’ trap after their own first bye of the season, ironically
beating Naka Drotske’s very charges 26-20 at Loftus in their first game back
off one a few weeks ago.
Given that we are nearing the business end of the
competition, Ludeke will drum into his players the great need not to slip up
against the worst-performing (but still no mugs in team-sheet terms, mind) side
The Bulls ought to also be buoyed by thoughts of settling
scores, as they have lost each of their last two matches to the Highlanders -
16-11 in Dunedin last season and a shock 35-28 in Pretoria a year earlier.
A sudden “banana peel” outcome would severely dent the
Bulls’ chances of that precious home semi-final: they still have to negotiate
fixtures against traditionally fierce local rivals the Sharks (twice) and the Stormers
Forget that both those sides will probably be mathematically
dead in the competition by then: South African teams simply don’t go belly-up
for each other in derbies, regardless of the circumstances ...
Next round of matches (home teams first, all times SA):
Hurricanes v Chiefs, 09:35; Rebels v Stormers, 11:40; Force v Sharks, 13:45. Saturday: Crusaders v Blues, 09:35;
Waratahs v Brumbies, 11:40; Bulls v Highlanders, 17:05; Cheetahs v Reds, 19:10.
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