Bulls, Sharks need fast hit-back

    2015-02-15 13:17
    Gary Gold and Brendan Venter (Gallo Images)

    Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

    Cape Town – Turn around our losing start quickly ... that will be a key objective of both the Bulls and Sharks camps in the coming week.

    Both supposed South African heavyweights were victims of shock home reverses in round one of Super Rugby, with the side from Pretoria not even managing a consolation bonus point, and they will cast their eyes anxiously to follow-up fixtures next weekend.

    It’s a vital chance for atonement – again at Loftus and Kings Park -- as the Hurricanes and Lions respectively provide the opposition next up.

    The word “vital” can be an irritating cliché in sport, but in this instance its usage is probably quite justified.

    That is because neither team can afford to slip again, when you consider that a week later they run into each other in a Highveld clash to close out the month of February: nought from three in either case would be a hammer blow to any quest to win the local conference and ideally also bank a home semi-final in 2015.

    Many observers, including yours truly, listed the Sharks and Bulls pre-tournament as the country’s best finals series candidates this year, and it would be idiotically premature to wish to revisit that theory at this fledgling stage.

    The Sharks, for instance, humbled by a four-try-grabbing Cheetahs in Durban, ought to be significantly strengthened shortly by first-up absentees like the Japan-based Frans Steyn, JP Pietersen and Ryan Kankowski and hopefully on-the-mend home-based young dynamos such as Thomas du Toit and (a bit deeper into the roster) Paul Jordaan.

    They have already suffered the setback of seeing their Springbok first choice loosehead prop Tendai Mtawarira limp off awkwardly with a leg injury against the admirable party-spoilers from Bloemfontein, and captain Bismarck du Plessis pulling out at the eleventh hour was unsettling to rhythm as well – the juggernaut hooker says he expects to be fine for the Lions date.

    The Sharks are embarking on a new era with Gary Gold and Brendan Venter pulling the tactical strings – they sometimes ran the ball out from surprisingly deep on Saturday with a bit of success – so teething troubles are to be expected.

    There is also a case for arguing that this was simply a funny old first round, when you throw in such outcomes as the Crusaders’ home shocker against the traditionally minnow Rebels.

    Nevertheless, Sharks fans would have been irked to hear SuperSport pundit and former Bok coach Nick Mallett observe: “The Cheetahs out-enthused them ... (some) Sharks players looked very lethargic, frankly.”

    But if that was still the more surprising of the two derby results -- the Sharks so nearly snatched it late when Marcell Coetzee lost control of the ball muscling it over the try-line -- a Bulls side much closer to fullest staffing crashing by 12 points to arch-rivals the Stormers was a bitter pill to swallow for the Loftus faithful.

    In short, the Bulls were imposing for the first five minutes or so ... but then the tide progressively turned even if a ghastly error by Jurgen Visser proved the catalyst for the turnaround in scoreboard terms.

    From there, a slightly makeshift-looking Stormers outfit dared to believe, and their conviction only mushroomed – especially upfront where they seized physical bragging rights with skipper Duane Vermeulen, Michael Rhodes and others immense.

    The Capetonians also appear to have unearthed a major tighthead scrummaging asset in Vincent Koch, the former Pumas strongman who also featured forcefully in open play – when Springbok Frans Malherbe is fully fit imminently, he will not find that acquiring the No 3 jersey straight away is a fait accompli.

    Keep in mind that the Stormers began the match without both Eben Etzebeth and Manny Carizza as lock options, and when Jean Kleyn was sidelined after the first half and then gametime-shy Ruan Botha had to come off as well, they were down to a makeshift third-choice pairing in Jurie van Vuuren and the repositioned Rhodes ... and still they continued to hold sway determinedly in the engine room.

    Another big statement-maker was inside centre Damian de Allende, who oozed urgency and authority from start to finish and mixed powerful commitment in contact and via leg drive with some silky touches.

    Expect a particularly big crowd, following this tenacious showing, for the Stormers’ first Newlands match against the Blues, who tasted narrow defeat to the Chiefs, on Saturday evening ...

    Next weekend’s fixtures (home teams first, all kick-offs SA time):

    Friday: Chiefs v Brumbies, 08:35; Rebels v Waratahs, 10:40; Bulls v Hurricanes, 19:10. Saturday: Highlanders v Crusaders, 08:35; Reds v Force, 10:40; Stormers v Blues, 17:05; Sharks v Lions, 19:10. Bye: Cheetahs.

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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