Bulls’ home semi hopes soar

    2013-05-20 06:40
    Morne Steyn and Jano Vermaak (Gallo Images)

    Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

    Cape Town - Whenever the Bulls bank a home semi-final in Super Rugby, they unfailingly go on to win the tournament.

    It is a great statistical spur to have for their five remaining 2013 ordinary-season fixtures, especially as weekend results elsewhere generally enhanced their prospects of an all-important finish in the top two.

    The Bulls are now second overall, following their expected bonus-point home triumph over the Highlanders on Saturday, and breathing strongly down the necks of the top-placed Chiefs (two points ahead, having played an extra game).

    A wobbly weekend for the two strongest-challenging Australian sides, the Brumbies and Reds - both of whom lost - represented pretty satisfying news for Frans Ludeke’s charges, even if the last-named side lost to the Bulls’ main rivals in the South African conference, the Cheetahs.

    By returning to winning ways themselves in Bloemfontein, the Free Staters are certainly still in with a crack at eclipsing the Bulls to best finish in the domestic group - they are six points behind, having played one extra game, although they still have a handy bye awaiting them on the last day of the campaign.

    Yet the three-time champions from Pretoria, given their far greater experience of the pressure at the business end of Super Rugby, will also know that they can really put the conference to bed if they knock over the Cheetahs away in a fortnight - it is the type of game that can produce a swing of some eight log points or more.

    That is a massive clash, although in truth just one of many across all three conferences over the next few weeks, and the Bulls will enter it buoyed by the knowledge of their fantastic track record away to those foes: they have won all five Bloemfontein meetings in Super Rugby history and sometimes by surprisingly big margins.

    Before they can even think about the big-punching Cheetahs, for instance, the Bulls must first size up the challenge in Durban next Saturday (19:10) of the desperate Sharks, who managed to just keep their own playoffs hopes alive by winning their final overseas tour match against the Force in Perth on Friday.

    These teams have not even met once yet this season, so their brace of clashes could be pivotal, just as in New Zealand, modern big guns the Chiefs and Crusaders still await home-and-away fixtures against each other – the first is in Hamilton on Friday.

    Both of the top two teams on the table, the Chiefs and Bulls, have only derbies ahead of them now, a situation which has obvious advantages in terms of greatly limiting the travel factor, but also some perils as time-honoured domestic rivalries ensure uncompromising contests regardless of log positions.

    The last few weeks have shown just how tough the Bulls are to overcome in their own stamping ground: they weren’t at their best against the ailing Highlanders and left the bonus-point try late, but did the business nevertheless against often spoiling opponents and seemed intent on maintaining their welcome high-tempo and adventurous characteristic of recent times.

    There are some brutal assignments among the five still ahead for Pierre Spies and company, including three away from Loftus, but a home semi-final looks much more feasible than it did two or three weeks ago, when there had seemed a greater danger of the best-placed South African team in the competition having to settle for a trickier third-placed finish on the collective table.

    The historical trend is this: get the Bulls into a Loftus semi, and they go on to lift the trophy.

    That has been the case three times out of three before, with the Crusaders the beaten semis foes in each instance (2007, 2009 and 2010).

    Two of the subsequent finals they played in have also been home ones, although even in their maiden title success in 2007, the Bulls were able to snatch it on enemy turf as they grabbed that dramatic last-gasp win against the Sharks at Kings Park, courtesy of Bryan Habana’s decisive in-field burst after the low-decibel siren ...

    Next round of games (home teams first, all times SA):

    Friday: Chiefs v Crusaders (09:35), Rebels v Waratahs (11:40). Saturday: Blues v Brumbies (09:35), Force v Highlanders (11:40), Kings v Cheetahs (15:00), Stormers v Reds (17:05), Sharks v Bulls (19:10). Bye: Hurricanes.

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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