Bulls show flashes of old glory

    2014-03-02 16:29

    Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

    Cape Town – Three-times champions the Bulls have remembered, to their pleasure, that there is no place quite like home.

    Forced to begin their 2014 campaign with successive away derbies, in Durban and Bloemfontein, and emerging with a solitary losing bonus point to show for their troubles, their return to Loftus on Saturday was marked by a comfortable victory over early domestic pace-setters the Lions.

    It was no vintage performance, and this regrouping team remains well less formidable on paper than the class of three or four years back.

    But it also the third time on the trot, as acting captain Flip van der Merwe pointed out immediately afterwards, that “bad weather has followed us around” ... and for purpose and energy in ceaseless drizzle there were at least fledgling signs of a good moon rising again over Pretoria.

    Conveniently, as they continue their quest to make up ground from their rocky start, Loftus will remain their stamping ground for a few more weeks until they embark on their overseas leg: they entertain the unpredictable Blues next Saturday, then enjoy a bye before the Sharks arrive for the quick return fixture between the sides and champions the Chiefs follow.

    It is true that the Bulls have managed only two tries from their three starts this year, but the unpleasant elements have played a reasonably big part in that.

    And the one they registered against the Lions -- on an evening otherwise dominated by the kicking proficiency of flyhalf Jacques-Louis Potgieter -- harked back a bit to the times when their hardened, Springbok-laden pack would subdue their rival eight and then the outside backs come handsomely into the picture on the fast Highveld surface with some deft use of the width of the pitch.

    On this occasion Jan Serfontein romped over after slick lead-up yards and a well-timed off-load from Bjorn Basson.

    It seemed evidence that the Bulls are coming around to the fact that a game-plan too heavily geared around box kicking and high bombs won’t necessarily suit their current crop of players.

    Apart from his charge-down blemish, the renewed spirit of enterprise was promisingly embraced by scrumhalf Francois Hougaard who looked much more like his old, effervescent and instinctive self.

     Much further south in the country, meanwhile, the Stormers continue to provide significantly more questions than they do answers, even if they got their campaign up -- though not exactly “running” -- by grinding out a disjointed, one-point triumph over the Hurricanes.

    Although the decisive cricket Test across the railway line was always going to be an unusually strong weekend counter-attraction for the local sports-watching consumer, it was instructive that only some 31,000 turned out – that was the official figure, and it somehow seemed less than that – for the 2014 Newlands opener by Jean de Villiers’s side.

    Ordinarily you would expect far fewer empty seats than that for the first home assignment at what is traditionally one of the best-attended venues in Super Rugby.

    The faithful were restless and distracted, too, for major chunks of a mediocre game, at least until the last few minutes when the Stormers, to their credit, showed that they do have a pulse by coming from behind to nick the spoils and De Villiers made wise decisions over how to treat penalties at tricky moments time-wise.

    Although you don’t want to underplay their renowned excellence at it, it was also educative that their lone, game-turning try came via their old attacking sanctuary: the rumbling maul off a lineout.

    Too few other ways of getting past opponents’ defences are apparent, although Damian de Allende fizzed with intent at inside centre and there were flashes of inspiration from both wings, Gio Aplon and young Kobus van Wyk.

    The optimistic view would be that out of such a barren landscape can grow surprising, fresh seeds of something, but there was still very little in the quality of the performance to suggest that their imminent “roster from hell” abroad will produce any notable harvest.

    Simply because of their known resilience in Australasia and willingness to embrace foreign climes, I have a hunch the Stormers will grind out at least one win – though don’t ask me which scalp they will bag! – from the four games and return home still believing that they can do just about enough catch-up to sneak into the six-team finals series.

    South African wins in Christchurch hardly fall from the trees, yet an argument could be made for the Crusaders being vulnerable in the Stormers’ first tour clash on Saturday as they are nought from two.

    Unfortunately, the ‘Saders have a reputation anyway as slow starters and the pressing need to get on the board in win terms may instead prove a strong, irresistible motivator against the Capetonians.

    As for the Cheetahs, their first game overseas against the Rebels on Friday was barely short of wretched, as they allowed the limited Melbourne Rebels to more or less trample them in a lethargic display.

    Their tour only gets harder, and the fact that they have slipped to one win from three starts seems to bear out a suspicion that they punched admirably above their weight last season and may see a correction to more modest levels in 2014.

    As things stand, and even at this early point, Sharks fans may well be smugly believing it will take a near miracle for any other domestic outfit to challenge their mantle as likeliest conference table-toppers and best hopes for the overall glory.

    Next week’s fixtures (home teams first, all times SA):

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

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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