Bulls confirm 3-horse SA race

    2013-02-23 09:08

    Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

    Cape Town - Much pre-season Super Rugby talk in South Africa revolved around the Sharks and Stormers, last season’s best-progressing sides from these parts, beefing up their squad depth ahead of the 2013 campaign.

    By extension, the implication in some circles was that the coastal powers would be compelling bets again to go furthest based on their passage through the SA conference.

    Meanwhile the Bulls, presumably, simply quietly noted the observations and got on with their own preparations and ambitions – remember that they did still make the play-offs themselves in 2012, even if they were blown out at the first knockout attempt 28-13 against the Crusaders in New Zealand.

    On Friday night, they issued a warning: bury any thoughts that the SA challenge may only be a two-team affair this year.

    They won’t even be concerned that their derby opener against the Stormers, on a balmy Loftus night, was a frankly wretched, bumbling contest which did little to suggest that finesse and flair have become renewed priorities in South Africa.

    A winning start is a winning start, and by depriving their two-time conference-topping visitors of a losing bonus point as well, they ensured that the men under acting captain Jean de Villiers have begun their latest challenge notably on the back foot, and with immediate follow-up toughies against the Sharks and Chiefs looming large.

    Meanwhile the Bulls ought to only gather healthy steam for the time being: whatever happens in the Western Force’s first SA tour match against the Kings later on Saturday, the limited Western Australians are likely to remain firm underdogs when they travel to Pretoria next weekend.

    So there is every likelihood that when Pierre Spies and company embark on their Antipodean tour (however they fare, it will be a fillip to get it out of the way so early) it will be with consecutive wins beneath their belts.

    The Bulls did little outside of their anticipated template against their fierce southern rivals: the pack rose to the occasion admirably in spirit and effort (execution of set-piece play wasn’t always so hot, across the board) which was enough to ensure that flyhalf Morne Steyn, back with that unmistakable twinkle in his eye, was able not only to keep the ball deftly in front of the heavies in front of him but also land his goals like clockwork.

    They bossed several one-on-one duels, and particularly at No 10 where Steyn’s clinical efficiency (let’s not go too overboard, the man still comes up a bit short for excitement and X-factor) only glowed more strongly because his Stormers-debutant, opposite number Elton Jantjies had a game to utterly forget in most respects.

    Let’s not be too swift to write off the diminutive pivot, however: he was undercooked after missing the pre-season fixtures through an unfortunate family bereavement, and certainly wasn’t the only Stormers player to look as though he’d forgotten to remove his summer slipslops.

    The Capetonians were absolutely awful in patches, even if they did show some sense of awakening in the second half.

    If Jantjies had the yips when it came to place-kicking – the Stormers might have sneaked this one had he been more accurate, but would hardly have merited that outcome – so did Deon Fourie when it came to lineout throwing.

    So it is very much back to the drawing board for their rather humbled eight; pack coach Matt Proudfoot has his hands full ahead of the similarly daunting trip to Durban, that’s for sure.

    Just as alarming from a Stormers perspective was how the Bulls, for whom sound scrummaging has not been a forte for some time, dominated that department.

    Considering that seasoned tighthead prop Werner Kruger unusually left the park through injury as early as the 25th minute, and that loosehead Morne Mellett was making his Super Rugby debut, the Cape side will be alarmed that their starting front-row combo of Kitshoff-Fourie-Cilliers was still eclipsed.

    The Stormers clearly need characters like Schalk Burger and Eben Etzebeth to add some mongrel and “desperation” to their engine room, but don’t hold your breath, Stormers fans ... that could still be several weeks away in both instances and the big inconvenience and worry is that their agenda is definitely stiffest in the first part of the conference hostilities.

    Possibly the biggest dilemma facing head coach Allister Coetzee for the week-two challenge of the Sharks, however, will be whether to sideline Jantjies so unreasonably early and consider the more pragmatic but still highly attractive claims of Peter Grant, who will reportedly be available for selection and knows the Cape side’s systems so well.

    Both the Bulls and Stormers lost several of their personnel to injuries on Friday, with medical verdicts awaited.

    Perhaps you’re not supposed to whisper it too loudly, but could the phenomenon again have been at least partly due to the ongoing, lopsided South African obsession with raw “collision”?

    Just a thought ...

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

    HAVE YOUR SAY: Are the Bulls legitimate SA Conference - and Overall - Super Rugby contenders this season? Or is it too early to tell? Send your thoughts to Sport24.
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