Bulls to hold conference key?

    2013-02-13 13:00

    Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

    Cape Town – They may well finish beneath the two strong coastal powers, the Stormers and Sharks, but the Bulls quite possibly hold the key that will determine which side eventually tops the South African conference in Super Rugby 2013.

    There is a widespread belief among critics – a view shared by this writer – that either of the Cape Town or Durban-based outfits, with their impressive, respective strength in depth, will probably “rule the pool” in SA terms.

    For the record, my No 1 tip for conference supremacy is again for the Stormers, who have become experts at grinding out wins in tight ordinary-season contests, thus making it a hat-trick of successes for them in that regard, even if the much more coveted main prize continues to elude the men from Newlands.

    It could be a desperately close battle, and even if the Sharks do end conference runners-up again, they will take comfort from the fact that they went further in 2012 – to the final against first-time champions the Chiefs, although their route there involved a particularly debilitating amount of late-campaign travel.

    Make no mistake, the Sharks, with their multi-pronged and up-tempo brand of rugby, also have an excellent chance of bossing the South African table, come the final day of ordinary-season play on July 13.

    Over the past few days, my own mind has yo-yoed agonisingly over which of the Stormers or Sharks will head the SA pack – to the point that when news broke of the Stormers’ Springbok lock phenomenon Eben Etzebeth being ruled out of all three stiff, important early hurdles against the Bulls, Sharks and Chiefs, I began to lean a fraction back toward the Sharks.

    But then it emerged from the Durban camp that captain and livewire loose forward Keegan Daniel was also going to be sidelined for a few weeks, and that Bismarck du Plessis, probably the planet’s top hooker, might only see first action in 2013 after the midway mark of the competition.

    The abrasive, team-inspiring qualities of Du Plessis are well documented, and he is also a strong factor in wrenching possession off opposition ball-carriers, such is his rare upper-body strength.

    But the Daniel setback is also not to be dismissed too lightly, despite the Sharks’ pretty good barrel of “loosie” options: he is a vital cog in their attacking game, with his stealth, diminutiveness, eye for a gap and cleverness in the off-load.

    Across the park, the Stormers and Sharks mostly boast impressive “second choices” in the various positions – it is probably not an exaggeration to say that their imaginary B-sides would prove stronger in Super Rugby this season than, say, the first teams of the Force, Rebels and Kings and perhaps even a few others.

    It will be interesting to see whether the arrival of loan signing Franco van der Merwe remedies the Sharks’ long-time lineout woes, while the success or otherwise of another Lions-based temporary recruit, flyhalf Elton Jantjies, in his posting to Cape Town, may also go a long way to determining whether the Stormers truly prosper.

    Perhaps Jantjies’s biggest challenge will be to fit in seamlessly with the Stormers’ heavy emphasis on rock-like defence; if he finds that problematic in his key channel, expect near-veteran Peter Grant (once returned from Japan) to get more game-time for the Stormers than some may anticipate at this point.

    What of the Bulls? Just because I again cannot see fit to include them among the top two in the conference, doesn’t mean I am writing off their challenge – far from it, in fact.

    I do see them as fair enough bets to make the playoffs cut as a possible third SA presence among the six qualifiers, remembering that there has to be room for at least one Australian presence under tournament stipulations.

    So an only snag counting against the side from Loftus, perhaps, will be the likelihood that New Zealand will also target getting three teams through the funnel – all of the Chiefs, Crusaders and reawakening Highlanders doubtless fancy a crack at that.

    Still, the Bulls will be particularly good choices as dark horses if the endeavours of some of their gnarly, senior troops are matched by big first-class breakthrough seasons from the likes of Jan Serfontein or Arno Botha.

    And they may also be the ace “spoilers” of the conference – both the Sharks and Stormers are likely to go into their pair of derbies against them with some trepidation, regardless of how any of the trio of sides are faring at the time.

    Last season, for instance, the Stormers downed the Bulls on each occasion by a whisker, whilst the Bulls knocked over the Sharks at Loftus in round one (although they were later soundly beaten 32-10 in Durban, by way of Sharks revenge).

    If the Cheetahs have “heartbeat” customers like Coenie Oosthuizen and Heinrich Brussow available more often than not, they should have enough artillery to force controversial newcomers the Kings into the wooden-spoon berth on the SA ladder, forcing the Eastern Cape side into promotion/relegation activity against the Lions later in the year.

    But allow me to warn this, with some measure of conviction: if the Cheetahs become dogged with injuries to core personnel it is not impossible that the Kings, steered by the strategic wiles of director of rugby Alan Solomons and assuming that they are able to be at fullest strength themselves often enough, will have a sniff at ending fourth in the group!

    Here are six massive, probably highly influential derby dates to diarise: February 22: Bulls v Stormers; March 2: Sharks v Stormers;  April 13: Stormers v Sharks; May 25: Sharks v Bulls; July 6: Bulls v Sharks; July 13: Stormers v Bulls.

    An overall title pick? Hmm, it seems particularly tough to separate the best sides this year, although I have a niggling little hunch – hopefully an irrational one – that the trophy will stay in New Zealand despite many seriously optimistic South African beliefs to the contrary.

    My predicted SA Conference finishing order (with mid-table Bulls also a borderline playoffs possibility):

    1. Stormers
    2. Sharks
    3. Bulls
    4. Cheetahs
    5. Kings

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

    HAVE YOUR SAY: Do you agree with Rob's predicted finishing order in the SA Super Rugby Conference? Send your thoughts to Sport24.

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