2018 Lions v 2010 Bulls: Who’s better?

    2018-08-03 13:07

    Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

    Cape Town – Eight years apart … so lots of changes in the interim to playing styles and laws of the game, not to mention a very different Super Rugby structure.

    Yet there are also certain irresistible comparisons to be made between the current Lions team - about to enter their third final in as many years against the formidable Crusaders in Christchurch on Saturday - and the last consistently successful South African side in the competition.

    That outfit, of course was the Bulls, courtesy of a glowing period between 2007 and 2010 where they won the title three times in four seasons, winning all three showpieces they appeared in (against the Sharks in 2007, Chiefs in 2009 and their golden era culminating against the Stormers in Soweto, 2010).

    Speaking of culmination, it is hardly a secret that the present Lions will be bidding farewell to certain stalwart players after the 2018 competition ends at AMI Stadium, suggesting a bit of a “last chance saloon” in their title quest as next year onward may require a patient rebuild toward a really strong force again.

    So although you are not quite comparing apples with apples, there is also no harm in fantasizing about a meeting between the Lions XV chosen for this weekend’s final and the Bulls XV who last brought the competition’s main silverware to a South African cabinet in 2010.

    Who’d win? Here’s my stab at it, examining the respective line-ups by positional groups on the park …


    Andries Coetzee, Ruan Combrinck and Courtnall Skosan (Lions) v Zane Kirchner, Gerhard van den Heever and Francois Hougaard (Bulls)

    Young excitement-machine Aphiwe Dyantyi is debatably curtailed to Saturday’s bench, but that’s not enough to quite convince me that the Bulls trio would match the Lions group.

    The respective fullbacks are both “solid” more than game-breaking, but Coetzee has shown pleasingly all-round effectiveness this year.

    Van den Heever was a decent poacher at his best, but never earned Springbok honours, and versatile “Hougie”, of course, was playing in his second-best berth in the 2010 final (though he scored a fine try).

    Strictly at Super Rugby level, the Lions wings perhaps cut it better, on tournament reputation?

    Advantage: Lions  


    Lionel Mapoe and Harold Vorster (Lions) v Jaco Pretorius and Wynand Olivier (Bulls)

    It’s tight again, but Mapoe’s corkscrewing runs and clever lines make him a lovely foil for his now pretty regular midfield partner Vorster – the latter certainly on the up at 24 and a cerebral decision-maker and creator for the Lions.

    Mapoe, remember, tends to show up better for the Lions than he has in a dozen Test appearances.

    Adaptable back-liner Pretorius represented both the Lions and Bulls, and settled into a trusty No 13 at Loftus although he retired at age 32 on medical advice after back issues.

    As for Olivier, “Meisiekind” always had his critics (albeit usually outside Pretoria) but the 38-cap Springbok is a durable rugby player still on Worcester Warriors’ books at 35.

    Advantage: Lions


    Elton Jantjies and Ross Cronje (Lions) v Morne Steyn and Fourie du Preez (Bulls)

    Look, finals aren’t always pretty and there will always be those favouring a more metronomic, play-for-field-position pivot (read: Steyn) on such occasions over an undoubtedly more naturally talented but sometimes dubious option-taking fellow like Jantjies.

    What has to be agreed is that both, in very different ways, have been yeoman servants to their Super Rugby franchises.

    Scrumhalf is where the 2010 Bulls hold a huge ace, of course: the marvellously gifted, but also smart game-managing Bok icon Du Preez.

    Cronje is a terrier for the Lions, but simply among several “scrummies” who have been used with strictly limited success by South Africa since the international retirement of Du Preez in late 2015.

    Advantage: Bulls


    Warren Whiteley, Cyle Brink and Kwagga Smith (Lions) v Pierre Spies, Dewald Potgieter and Deon Stegmann (Bulls)

    The Lions trio are a still-emerging factor as a combination; bear in mind that in last year’s final against the very same Crusaders the red-and-whites still had now-departed Ruan Ackermann and Jaco Kriel among their starting loosies.

    Whiteley against Spies would be an engrossing battle of mobile eighth-men, with Spies having an edge in pure explosive power but sometimes going a bit AWOL in work-rate at the coalface.

    The respective flankers are also closely matched, with Smith possibly more visible in open, linking play than open-side rival Stegmann would be, but the latter a more seasoned specialist at scavenging and slowing down opposition ball.

    Similarly, the increasingly dynamic Brink and “Slangkos” Potgieter (the two-start Bok is still active in the English Premiership) have almost identical physical proportions for their blindside duel.

    Advantage: None … dead heat!


    Franco Mostert and Marvin Orie (Lions) v Victor Matfield and Danie Rossouw (Bulls)

    Quality combos, both.

    That Bulls side of 2010 was missing global lineout supremo Matfield’s primary career ally in the second row, Bakkies Botha: the hard man was serving a suspension when the final came along.

    But that simply meant a seamless switch for adaptable, admirable professional and fellow-international Rossouw from No 7 to the four jersey; he was almost in Botha’s league for mongrel even if less animatedly so.

    The Lions of 2018 are about to lose Mostert to UK pastures; he has been at the very heart of their tight five for several years and a wonderfully unyielding provider of energy and graft.

    On the brighter side for them, 25-year-old Orie has come on in leaps and bounds this year, and can comfortably be pencilled in for either lock positions.  

    But with Matfield a vastly-decorated veteran of 127 Tests and Rossouw 63, you know where the scale has to tilt on this one …

    Advantage: Bulls


    Jacques van Rooyen, Malcolm Marx and Ruan Dreyer (Lions) v Gurthro Steenkamp, Gary Botha and Werner Kruger (Bulls)

    When you think front row, the first thing that should come to mind, of course, is “scrum”.

    Especially in the last few weeks, the Lions have really upped their game at the set-piece, and much of it is down to their trio at the core of the engine-room.

    Of the four props studied here, Steenkamp has the strongest CV (including 53 Bok caps), although Kruger was more renowned for his general industry and Bulls loyalty than as a destructive scrummager. (For all their command of other areas, the three-time title-winning Bulls were never a notably feared scrum unit.)

    Hooker Botha was a feisty competitor and had a three-year tenure as a Bok, but naturally the human wrecking-ball Marx – probably South Africa’s best rugby player in 2018 – must be considered the premier man in the berth.

    Advantage: Lions

    VERDICT: Well, I have the Lions shading three departments, the Bulls two, and one of them split, which might suggest that the Jo’burgers hold overall sway on paper.

    But whoa there … you have to weigh that against the fact that the Bulls team contains a sprinkling of true legends of the game (though Marx is getting there!) who sport World Cup-winning medals, like Matfield, Rossouw and Du Preez.

    Also, you have to give due credit to the highly apparent “BMT” of those Bulls in being able to master all three finals they played in, whereas the Lions, let’s face it, are nought from two in stabs at the pressure-cooker occasion, as things stand.

    So I’m leaning just a fraction toward the Bulls nosing out this phantom scrap, advantaged also by their glittering era having come shortly before the much more sped-up, damaging exodus of home-based rugby players to lucrative foreign climes.

    Then again, if these gutsy, strong-spirited Lions achieve Mission Impossible against the ‘Saders in their own den, I may well be begging for a cheeky rethink by late morning on Saturday …

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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