Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – South African triumphs over New Zealand opposition hardly growing on trees, the Bulls knocking over both the Hurricanes and Highlanders at Loftus in Super Rugby 2018 would have a nice ring to it.
That mini-sweep, if you like, will become a pleasant reality if they see off the visitors from Dunedin in their second and last Super Rugby match specifically against NZ foes in Pretoria this season.
Claiming both those scalps would certainly emphasise quite powerfully the gradual strides back toward title-challenging terrain that the Bulls are making under John Mitchell’s watchful eye.
As it is, the Bulls are very much in contention for the debatably generous, eight-team knockout phase of the competition with their three convincing wins on the trot (Stormers, Sharks, Rebels) and ascent to second on the SA conference table.
They also have the satisfaction - not inconsiderable, if you examine the strongest group - of knowing that once the dust settles on Saturday’s Highlanders clash, they are done with games against NZ opponents for the remainder of ordinary season.
Two from four against sides from those shores, if they can ensure that situation on Saturday, would be a more than acceptable return, particularly as the Bulls had the drawback this season of the clearly weakest NZ team once again, the Blues, being the one they didn’t get to grapple with.
How they must have wished they could, when reading recent results by compatriots against them: the Sharks’ 63-40 triumph in Auckland and Stormers’ similarly clear-cut 37-20 win at Newlands.
Keep in mind also that in one of their pair of matches in the Land of the Long White Cloud, the Bulls gave the Chiefs the fright of their lives in the first half in Hamilton, leading 21-7 before they ran out of puff - and showed some of their understandable growth pains and naivety - to surrender 41-28.
But just what is the likelihood of the Bulls earning a fourth successive tournament victory on Saturday (17:15 kick-off)?
They should not fall into the trap of believing that the Highlanders will somehow be a lesser threat than the ‘Canes - unfailing in a further six outings since their Loftus hiccup - were at the start of the season.
The Otago side, remember, may lie a slightly deceptive sixth overall at present, but they have only played seven matches (five wins) - several sides have played nine, and the Highlanders are a well-within-reach six points behind the log-leading Lions with two fixtures in hand.
Like several other NZ teams, they have no special fears these days of visiting South Africa … or even the more specific demands of lung-busting Highveld conditions, that’s for sure.
Since being crowned maiden champions of Super Rugby in 2015, the Highlanders have been to our shores three times and won all three games.
In 2016, they beat the now-banished Kings 48-18 in Port Elizabeth, and last year earned a heartening double.
First, they saw off the Cheetahs (also since transferred to Pro14 activity) 45-41 in one of the most breathless and memorable games of ordinary season, rallying from a long way behind to register three tries in the last five minutes – including the clincher to muscular wing Waisake Naholo right at the death.
Instead of that achievement exhausting them for another match at altitude a week later, they proceeded to pip the Bulls, their very opponents this weekend, 17-10 at Loftus.
Just as admirably, the decisive score also came late: centre Malakai Fekitoa broke the 10-10 deadlock with a converted dot-down in the 75th minute.
Those are simply further, historically-based reminders of why the Bulls need to be fully switched-on this Saturday, perhaps even to the extent of doing something they haven’t always managed during 2018, despite their obvious revival: play with suitable intensity for as close as possible to the full 80 minutes.
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