Newlands win vital for Bulls

    2015-04-19 21:14

    Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

    Cape Town – The Bulls may hold a two-point lead over the Stormers at the top of the South African conference, but probably still need victory more than their hosts do in Saturday’s spicy Super Rugby derby at Newlands (19:10).

    Put it this way: if the Stormers repeat their first-round triumph at Loftus (29-17 then) they will become extremely firm favourites to win the conference.

    As things stand, the Capetonians have seven ordinary-season matches remaining, with five of them at home and only two away, whereas for the Bulls it is exactly the other way around - two at home and five away, including the formidable four-game programme abroad.

    So even if the Stormers lose to the old enemy on Saturday, they would still probably fancy their chances of leapfrogging the Loftus-based outfit at a later stage of the run-in.

    Bear in mind that last season the Bulls failed to win a single fixture overseas, so they may require at least two this time if they are to thwart the Stormers’ own quest to end the local standings atop the pile.

    At least two of the Australasian challenges facing the Bulls pretty soon will come from teams similarly pressing hard to make the playoffs cut, in the form of the Chiefs and Brumbies (the other games will be against the Blues and Rebels).

    So it doesn’t take Einstein to work out that the Stormers’ remaining schedule - their own overseas trip now completed with a tidy enough haul of 10 points from a possible 20 - is by some way the more favourable.

    The latest edition of the time-honoured south v north tussle comes at a great time, with each contestant emboldened by successive victories: the Stormers over Aussie sides the Waratahs and Force the Bulls over first the Reds and then another strong domestic foe, the Sharks in their own Durban backyard on Saturday.

    In some ways the Bulls may enter the high-stakes clash the sturdier mentally, given that they will not have travelled long-haul to arrive for it, whereas the Stormers will be returning from Perth, where a fiercely committed - but ultimately quality-lacking - Force side came fairly close to upsetting them in a humdrum game.

    The Stormers may well have inadvertently been over-confident, in retrospect, with many pundits predicting a more comfortable victory than the 13-6 it eventually was.

    Don’t under-estimate, either, the old one-foot-on-the-plane syndrome after a gruelling trek through foreign climes, with perhaps also a sense of preservation taking hold given the knowledge that the Bulls are next up in what should be a near full-house cracker.

    At the end of the day, the Stormers did the all-important business of bagging four log points from a grim scrap, and little else matters from such contests as Super Rugby heads toward the final straight.

    Similarly, the Bulls did well to repel a desperate Sharks combo at Kings Park in a typical all-SA arm-wrestle with some massive hits taking place and gains made in half-yards a lot of the time.

    Make no mistake, it was as uncompromising a domestic derby as you will see, so Pierre Spies’s team will be nursing a few bruises in the lead-up to Newlands as well.

    Speaking of Spies, the Bulls captain and No 8 ought to come up once more against Duane Vermeulen, the first-choice Stormers skipper and current holder of the Springbok jersey in that berth: he should be suitably fresh after a two-game break.

    It will be just one of several individual match-ups likely to be worth the entry fee at Newlands: if selection goes according to expectation in midweek then Eben Etzebeth, for example, will encounter fellow-international Flip van der Merwe in the clash of No 4 enforcers, Damian de Allende will run into another young, on-fire No 12 in the shape of Burger Odendaal – can the latter possibly be dropped for fit-again Jan Serfontein at this point? - and pocket rockets will square up at fullback in the shape of Cheslin Kolbe and Jesse Kriel.

    Meanwhile the Sharks, sadly, have all but joined the ranks of also-rans in 2014: a mere four wins from 10 starts is certainly no ticket to the finals series, even as certain core personnel who have been desperately missed re-enter the availability picture following this week’s bye.

    They would require a minimum of five victories from their remaining six matches to have a reasonable chance at squeezing through, you would think, and like the Bulls they are yet to negotiate the hazards of their tour.

    Compatriots the Cheetahs can also be branded goners now, having suffered the dual mortification of Heinrich Brussow’s broken arm and Joe Pietersen’s potentially game-tilting late penalty against the Reds in Bloemfontein striking an upright and staying out.

    The Lions, inactive in the latest round, remain better placed than those two to qualify as they, like the Stormers, have a heavier emphasis on home than away clashes in the weeks ahead – their Johannesburg meeting with the Cheetahs in the earlier SA derby at the weekend seems a must-win affair for the red-and-whites.

    Next round of matches (home teams first, all kick-offs SA time):

    Friday, April 24

    Chiefs v Force - 09:35

    Brumbies v Highlanders - 11:55

    Saturday, April 25

    Crusaders v Blues - 09:35

    Waratahs v Rebels - 11:55

    Lions v Cheetahs - 17:05

    Stormers v Bulls - 19:10

    Sunday, April 26

    Reds v Hurricanes - 08:05

    Bye: Sharks

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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