Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - Three of the four Super Rugby conferences are already very tight at the top ... but the Bulls, by contrast, need to be wary of not letting arch-rivals the Stormers get too much further ahead in Africa Conference 1.
Theirs is the only group currently featuring one runaway leader, with the Newlands-based side a whole eight points clear of the Bulls, even if the Pretoria outfit have a game in hand.
The situation is markedly different in Africa Conference 2, where leaders the Sharks are separated by only two points from the second-placed Lions after four matches each, and the same applies to the Australia Conference (Brumbies and Rebels on 13 points each), and New Zealand Conference (Chiefs holding off Highlanders at helm by one point).
Given that the Bulls are in the midst of a rebuilding phase with a strong emphasis on the development of younger players, the Stormers were already considered in pre-season by most critics as favourites to end up topping arguably the weakest pool of the quartet, also featuring the Cheetahs and Sunwolves.
If anything, the first few rounds have only underlined that likelihood, and Robbie Fleck’s charges widened the gap in round four with their fine triumph over the previously unbeaten Brumbies, whilst the Bulls had to rely on a late, close-range penalty miss by Joe Pietersen to escape with a home draw against the Sharks.
But there is no special reason yet for Bulls fans to get distraught about the possibility of missing out on a guaranteed home quarter-final, which is the reward for all conference-toppers.
Over the next four weekends, before they experience their next bye, the Loftus team have a healthy opportunity to claw back some ground on the Stormers and possibly even haul them in if their rivals slip up a couple of times.
Not only does the period see the Stormers have their own first bye, but the Bulls’ calendar looks a pretty inviting one, featuring four games that all have a potentially winnable look about them.
First up is Saturday’s date with the already-ailing Sunwolves in Singapore (12:55 SA time), and if we weren’t entirely sure whether the rookie Japanese franchise were vulnerable, we probably know it now: their 35-9 defeat to the Melbourne Rebels even in the preferred home-venue terrain of Tokyo suggests a campaign filled with the kind of angst expected of weakest SA franchise the Kings.
Already it is tempting to suggest that if the three-time champion Bulls - excellent for good parts of the Sharks derby - cannot overcome Saturday’s hurdle, they barely deserve to be challenging for conference mastery anyway.
I will be backing them for a win, as will many other pundits ... and then there are three further matches before their April 22/23 bye that should see results going their way each time if they play to expected standards.
Those are against the Cheetahs in Pretoria (April 2), Kings in Port Elizabeth (April 9) and Reds back in Pretoria again on April 16: wouldn’t it be fair to say losses in any of these would represent upsets?
Meanwhile the three games the Stormers play during the four-week period in question feature at least two indisputable toughies: while the Sunwolves at Newlands should be an absolute banker on April 8, this Saturday’s Buenos Aires date with the Jaguares has a mightily perilous look about it, given how desperate the Argentineans must be for a home victory.
After winning their opener against the Cheetahs, they lost their next two fixtures, but never by more than four points and only succumbed by a late try to the Chiefs in their latest clash (30-26).
The other very tricky one for the Stormers, while the Bulls negotiate a relatively “easy” phase, is the trip to Johannesburg on April 16 to play the sprightly Lions, albeit that the loss of playmaking flyhalf Elton Jantjies for several weeks is a significant blow to Johan Ackermann’s troops.
So it is not impossible that come the middle of April, the Bulls will be right up alongside or even ahead of their old enemies from the south in the conference.
On the flip side, if the Stormers keep looking like overall title possibles and the Bulls slip on some banana peels in the handful of looming matches they must be fancied to win, this group may be well-nigh settled long before the actual roster draws to a climax …
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