Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – The disadvantages for their hosts are fairly obvious anyway, but the Bulls may also be motivated by precedent when they tackle a travel-weary Stormers side at Newlands on Saturday (19:10).
This top-of-conference Super Rugby derby comes with the two sides likely now to be South Africa’s best respective hopes of overall glory this season, and both off a sequence of successive wins.
Whilst the Bulls will be carrying the odd painful scar of their own from a ground-out victory over a limited but desperately-motivated Sharks in Durban last weekend -- and that can’t be summarily dismissed as a drawback of their own – they still have the better pre-game deal as it is always a tougher ask for a side returning from their four-strong overseas roster to pick themselves up mentally and physically for a crucial clash with particularly fierce rivals the next.
Watching the Stormers labour to a pretty tepid 13-6 win against the Force in Perth last Saturday, when many pundits including the West Australians’ former coach John Mitchell had understandably backed them to prevail with rather more to spare, you got the sense that the Capetonians, perhaps unintentionally, had that very issue in mind at the time.
It was almost as if they were playing hang-in-there rugby for a bog standard (though eventually still precious) victory, fully aware that the fulcrum of their side needed to preserve something in the tank for the mighty derby onslaught of the Bulls.
So it is highly possible that the Stormers will actually be in better, more urgent overall fettle this weekend, with any inadvertent complacency perhaps evidenced against the Force firmly tossed out of the back window.
But the Bulls will still not be oblivious, nevertheless, to the thought that the home side’s collective legs may battle to last the fullest duration on Saturday, considering their long-haul passage from Down Under only a few days previously – even if Perth is the best of the Australasian venues to be coming back from as the trip is a bit shorter and the time difference less acute.
If Frans Ludeke and company in the Loftus brains trust have done some research, after all, they will have noted that, since the advent of the conference system in 2011, the Stormers have stumbled in two of three Newlands matches played straight off their overseas safari.
The only time the measure is not applicable is from the 2012 campaign, when the Stormers (who topped the overall log after ordinary season) returned to a handy bye in the next round after seeing off the very same Force 17-3 in Perth for a satisfying three-from-four win record abroad.
But just last year, the difficulty of “getting up” for a taxing home game straight off the tour was highlighted as the Stormers – admittedly a less competitive crew at the time – went down 22-11 to the Waratahs (later to be crowned maiden champions) at Newlands.
They suffered the same fate in 2011 ... and Bulls fans may be quick to spot a good omen as the Stormers’ setback then came against their own team.
The Capetonians, who would still go on to end second overall ahead of the playoffs that season, had just thumped the Rebels 40-3 in Melbourne, but then came the immediate task back home of the time-honoured south v north derby at Newlands, and a crowd of near-50,000 (expect not far off the same again this time?) saw the Stormers pipped 19-16 as the Bulls resurrected their own finals series prospects.
On that occasion, the Stormers had even had the relative “luxury” of an extra day to reacclimatise because their Melbourne match had been a Friday affair, allowing for an eight-day turnaround; this time it will only be the more standard seven.
From the starting line-ups from that particular day, survivors in the likely run-on XVs this weekend ought to be Duane Vermeulen and Schalk Burger (Stormers) and, in the Bulls’ ranks, a broader tally including Bjorn Basson, Francois Hougaard, Pierre Spies, Deon Stegmann and Dean Greyling.
But now for one or two pluses for the Stormers to bank.
For one thing, winning at Newlands straight after the overseas leg is not completely alien to them – they did it in 2013 when they beat the Reds 20-15 eight days after ending the tour with a disappointing and ultimately damaging (they would miss the playoffs by one berth) 31-20 loss to the Rebels.
They may also take heart from the case of the dapper Lions this year: they returned from a massively praiseworthy three-out-of-four tour record straight into a thankless sequence of two derbies.
Yet Warren Whiteley’s side still managed to see off both the Bulls and Sharks in Johannesburg, before the merciful arrival of a bye.
It seemed a very clear message that if you have the “gees”, you can stay on a roll, despite the various, fatiguing hazards associated with playing abroad ...
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