Bulls: Altitude aid still huge

    2013-07-24 14:41

    Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

    Cape Town – Sometimes it may appear a cliché, and almost a copout, to venture home advantage as a potentially decisive influence in a sports contest between two well-matched sides on paper.

    Closeness in “ink” terms certainly seems a feature when you put the Bulls and Brumbies starting XVs alongside each other and try to imagine which will advance from the Super Rugby semi-final at Loftus on Saturday (17:05).

    But tried-and-trusted wisdom in this competition, suggesting that long-haul travel a few days earlier by one of the competing sides is a killer and that the thin Highveld air is also a key device in favour of a South African home team, does point slightly toward the Bulls doing the business.

    No wonder Brumbies midfield legend Stirling Mortlock, the last captain of the franchise to prevail in Pretoria in 2006 (27-21), didn’t mince his words in the Canberra Times this week as he warned the current crop of the difficulty of playing at more than 1,300m above sea level.

    “Coaching and support staff put a lot of effort into planning the physical and mental shape, but the reality is at some stage the (Brumbies’) bodies will be burning.

    “In talking to a lot of the South African guys, they have that burn as well ... it’s just that they’re used to going through it.

    “It’s the guys having that understanding that at some stage they will have that burning, embracing it and getting through it together.”

    While the Brumbies have had to make the big pilgrimage across the Indian Ocean for the match, having narrowly seen off the Cheetahs in a semis qualifier as recently as Sunday, the Bulls have had a bye week in which to regroup from their 30-13 loss at the hands of the Stormers at Newlands.

    Whether that time off has been beneficial to the Bulls, or whether it might have been better to have “got back on the bike” in restoring competitive mojo as quickly as possible – had there been a game to play, of course -- may also be gauged on Saturday evening.

    Coach Frans Ludeke may be wise to remind his charges that high altitude and a partisan crowd alone don’t necessarily translate into runaway success against these particular foes.

    Only last season, for instance, in Jake White’s first visit to Loftus as the Brumbies’ head mastermind, they only went down 36-34 in a high-scoring thriller: the visitors actually ran in five tries to two, so it was the Bulls puffing a fair bit on the retreat at times and strongly reliant on Morne Steyn’s deadly-accurate boot to pinch the game.

     Yet the expected near full-house Loftus factor – “It’s pretty tough; I liken it to the spiritual home of South African rugby,” Mortlock added – could yet be a crucial determinant.

    While all the overseas-based Super Rugby teams got quite lucky in 2013 by unusually having a maximum of two possible Highveld venues to visit (the addition of the Kings to the competition meant three South African bases were coastal this season), that “advantage” still notably didn’t pay dividends in the results column at altitude for the various travellers to our shores.

    Statistics show that in eight attempts at victory in either Pretoria or Bloemfontein (when tackling the hugely improved Cheetahs in their stronghold), teams from Australia or New Zealand only succeeded once.

    That was the Hurricanes’ ding-dong, 39-34 victory at Free State Stadium – although only a week earlier they had come a 48-14 cropper in Bulls country.

    Here are all the results of overseas Super Rugby teams’ matches on the Highveld this season, most of them losses by fairly comprehensive margins:

    Bulls 36 Force 26, Bulls 30 Waratahs 19, Bulls 35 Highlanders 18, Bulls 48 Hurricanes 14, Cheetahs 34 Rebels 16, Cheetahs 27 Reds 13, Cheetahs 34 Blues 13, Cheetahs 34 Hurricanes 39.

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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