Beware bye complacency, Bulls

    2013-05-13 13:09

    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 so far.

    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 at Newlands.

    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):

    Friday: 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. Bye: Kings.

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

    Read More On:  bulls super 15 frans ludeke rugby

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