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
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
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.
round of matches (home teams first, all kick-offs SA time):
Friday, April 24
Chiefs v Force - 09:35
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
Hurricanes - 08:05
our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing