Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – Are the Bulls finally turning a corner in Super Rugby 2017?
The optimistic view would be that they are, at least based on a significantly-improved showing against the Chiefs in Hamilton on Saturday.
They succeeded in rattling their highly-rated hosts for pronounced periods of the clash at Waikato Stadium – thoroughly deserving their halftime lead and staying in front until the 51st minute – but then the Mooloo Men patiently found ways to unlock their hitherto tenacious defence and earn a mildly flattering 28-12 triumph.
As former Saracens and Namibia loose-forward favourite Jacques Burger, once on the books at Loftus, said ruefully in a tweet (@Nabasboer): “That’s what the NZ teams do. You just look up quickly to wave to your mum and they score.”
Physically intense and pleasingly exhibiting the required amounts of character on this occasion, the Bulls nevertheless served up some evidence that they might be at least beginning the process of clawing their way back up slowly from an early-season nadir (their record remains a tenuous played five, lost four, of course).
In conference terms, earning nothing in log points for their sweaty Hamilton endeavours was, regrettably for them, another damaging event: the Bulls are now a gaping 17 points behind unbeaten traditional arch-rivals the Stormers in Africa 1 after five matches each, as the Capetonians romped to a bonus-point triumph over the Cheetahs at Newlands.
So is it all over in terms of possible catch-up?
Well, stranger things have happened, when you consider that both sides have only completed a third of their ordinary-season programme and the Stormers are about to finally run into a block of genuinely difficult assignments on paper.
Chiefs, Lions, then a three-match New Zealand tour (the Bulls had to play only twice on NZ soil) … the heat cranks up greatly on Robbie Fleck’s charges in the next few weeks, with not a single “easy-beat” on offer.
Which is why their own next three weekends -- ahead of their next bye -- are of critical importance now for the Bulls; a genuine make-or-break period, you suspect, with victories arguably essential in each instance.
The roster eases just a little for the men from Pretoria for the next while, with a trio of matches that can all be regarded as winnable, particularly if they can add a touch of refinement and finesse to their rugged qualities displayed against the Chiefs.
First it’s the brief, final stopover of their overseas trek in Tokyo, and a chance, frankly, to put up a better showing the second time around this season against the Sunwolves than managed at Loftus recently (a fumbling 34-21 victory, without a bonus point).
Defeat to the Japanese outfit? That really would be a case of back to square one, and no doubt particularly incense the already pretty restless Loftus faithful.
But if we assume the Bulls do get past that hurdle, successive home matches against the Jaguares (though they will need to bring an A-game) and Cheetahs (that one a revenge opportunity for events in round one in Bloemfontein) then present further opportunities for the three-time former champions to pick up a precious head of steam before they earn another week off.
What follows from there is another run of toughies for Adriaan Strauss and company … just another reason why, say, 12 points out of a possible 15 must be an absolute minimum target for the Bulls’ imminent next three rounds.
Anything less and it hugely increases the risk, much further down the line, that the clash on the last day of ordinary season between the Bulls and Stormers in Pretoria has nothing significant left at stake for the home side …
All 10 remaining Bulls fixtures: Sunwolves (a), Jaguares (h), Cheetahs (h), bye, Crusaders (h), Highlanders (h), Lions (a), Hurricanes (h), Sharks (a), Kings (h), Stormers (h).
All 10 remaining Stormers fixtures: Chiefs (h), Lions (h), Crusaders (a), Highlanders (a), Hurricanes (a), bye, Blues (h), Sharks (a), Cheetahs (a), Sunwolves (h), Bulls (a).
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