Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – Hopefully recharging their batteries productively in a bye round ahead of it, the Bulls are steeling themselves for their most definitive overseas tour of the Super Rugby conference era.
If they were going to be contending strongly for the playoffs this year – as they are – it always looked like being the phase that would make or break their challenge, given how unusually late in ordinary season it has been scheduled for them in 2015.
When the Bulls return from the four-game itinerary abroad, there is only one further match before the finals series – at home to the Cheetahs.
Generally speaking, the ideal situation for South African sides is to tour roughly in the middle of the campaign: if you go too early, your season can be blown out of the water damagingly early.
And if you go notably late, it is a seriously tough time to try to get onto a consistently winning roll when you need that trend most – but that is the very challenge facing Frans Ludeke’s charges this time as the Blues, Chiefs, Brumbies and Rebels lie in wait for them in that order.
In short, if the Bulls have a very good tour (say with three wins?) the current domestic conference leaders -- heartened by an entertaining full-house victory over the Lions at Loftus on Saturday -- should be in excellent fettle not only for the eventual conference bragging rights, but a favourable playoffs ranking that might even involve a lucrative home semi-final.
By contrast, if the tour is broadly unsuccessful (one win, for example?) even reaching the playoffs phase could become an issue going into that last Loftus derby against the men from the Free State.
A “fifty-fifty” sort of tour could make for a real dogfight with the Stormers and possibly also the still-scrapping Lions to earn the conference win.
I took some inevitable stick from the pro-Bulls lobby at the weekend for daring to suggest that the Capetonians – despite being at pains to say they’ve not played convincing rugby for some three weeks – remain favourites to top the SA pile.
It was based purely on fixture probability, given that the Stormers, chastened by a damaging humbling in Bloemfontein, have a strongly Newlands-heavy run-in to the playoffs with four on the trot to come there, including a rejuvenating bye in between.
The suggestion was also based on historical fact: the Australasian leg is difficult for all SA teams and they tend to regard two wins – perhaps with an extra bonus point or two thrown in as well -- as virtual manna from heaven.
A glance at the Bulls’ record there specifically, since the advent of the three-conference model in 2011, does little to alter that view.
They have won only four of 20 matches overseas, which translates to a humble win percentage of 20, and have registered a total of 26 log points out of a possible 80 – that is a success rate of 32.5%.
The situation is obviously not helped by their winless tour last season, although they did manage to squeeze out a losing bonus point each time, so that pretty much counts as one “win”.
So if they are going to be limited to an average tour statistically by their standards, you can probably see why it potentially opens the door to the Stormers and/or Lions to haul them in, provided those two win more often than they lose back on local soil over roughly the same period.
Another noticeable phenomenon is that the Bulls have a habit of starting their tours better than they end them: in the four completed seasons of the conference system, they have earned all four victories during the first half of their itinerary.
In other words, they have unfailingly lost games three and four, when it is so often said anyway that South African teams suffer from “one foot on the plane home” syndrome.
This probably only doubles the importance of the current Bulls squad getting the trip off to a heartening start against the slowly improving but still fallible Blues in Auckland next Friday (May 15); losing that one would certainly amount to a back-foot beginning with tougher games ahead.
To their advantage is the now much more multi-dimensional brand of rugby they are playing, bringing their outside backs into attacking play to a greater extent than before and seeing plenty of dividends – the formula is showing up other traditionally “major” SA franchises like the Sharks, particularly, and Stormers.
The Bulls’ lineout is also still a strong device, especially with ace source and schemer Victor Matfield conveniently fit again, although the scrum stays a stubborn Achilles Heel.
This tour really is the focal point of their season: if they are spectacularly good on it, a real crack at a fourth title success may beckon; if spectacularly bad, they could simply recede into mid-table anonymity.
Bulls results abroad since 2011, from most recent:
Hurricanes 25 Bulls 20, Highlanders 27 Bulls 20, Waratahs 19 Bulls 12, Force 15 Bulls 9. Wins: 0/4. Log points haul: 4/20.
Blues 21 Bulls 28, Crusaders 41 Bulls 19, Reds 23 Bulls 18, Brumbies 23 Bulls 20. Wins: 1/4. Log points haul: 6/20.
Rebels 35 Bulls 41, Waratahs 24 Bulls 27, Highlanders 16 Bulls 11, Chiefs 28 Bulls 22. Wins: 2/4. Log points haul: 11/20.
Hurricanes 14 Bulls 26, Crusaders 27 Bulls 0, Reds 39 Bulls 30, Force 26 Bulls 21. Wins: 1/4. Log points haul: 5/20.
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