Bulls turn up heat on Stormers
Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – The Bulls on Friday surged right into the frame to win Africa Conference 1 in this year’s Vodacom Super Rugby.
Their fast-paced, purposeful 42-20 grilling of the Western Force in Perth saw the side from Pretoria not only open their three-match Australian tour with a bang, but draw level with leaders the Stormers on 28 points from eight games each – and seven to go in ordinary season.
The Capetonians only cling to their supremacy by way of a superior points differential of plus-92 to the Bulls’ plus-77.
It certainly increases the pressure on the Stormers to dispose of the Waratahs at Newlands in Saturday’s 19:15 kick-off slot, before Robbie Fleck’s charges have another bye.
The Bulls, meanwhile, will continue their tour with the two tougher games on paper of the overseas trio, beginning with the Brumbies next Friday and then their own showdown with the ‘Tahs in Sydney.
They snapped more than one bogey through their thoroughly deserved five-tries-to-two triumph, the first being burial of an 11-match losing streak for them in Australasia, since their last taste of success against the Blues in Auckland (28-21) in fairly distant 2013.
Another pleasing one was achievement of their first bonus-point win in either New Zealand or Australia since May 4 2012, when they also ran in five tries en route to a 41-35 victory over the Melbourne Rebels at AAMI Park.
Suddenly a greater tally of ambitious opponents than merely group-mates the Stormers in 2016 will be increasingly sitting up and taking notice of Adriaan Strauss and company (the skipper and Springbok hooker led the charge with a fiery personal performance) as they last lost way back in round one at Newlands on February 27.
If you judged how well they were placed after Friday’s two matches on the old, all-inclusive log system, the young Bulls outfit would currently be lying a rosy fourth overall, only trailing the Chiefs (37 points), Crusaders (32) and then the Stormers by the previously-mentioned whisker.
It makes for a gripping two-horse race to win their particular conference, especially as both the Bulls and Stormers have three home games and four away to negotiate still in the remainder of their ordinary-season rosters.
There is a case for saying the Stormers – always believed to have an unusually kind draw this season – boast the slightly easier run-in.
These are the remaining games for Robbie Fleck’s charges: Waratahs (h), Sunwolves (a), Bulls (a), Cheetahs (h), Rebels (a), Force (a), Kings (h).
Still ahead for the Bulls: Brumbies (a), Waratahs (a), Stormers (h), Lions (h), Jaguares (a), Sunwolves (h), Cheetahs (a).
The Loftus “north v south” derby between the two on May 21 naturally shapes up as a game with the potential to make all the difference in determining who eventually grabs the conference honours.
Both sides will enter it off long-haul travels back to South Africa only a few days earlier, the Bulls from their more gruelling Aussie tour and the Stormers from a once-off overseas date against Sunwolves in Singapore.
The group really could go to the wire, and if that is the case then the Stormers will probably feel more comfortable playing their final game against the Kings at Newlands on July 16, whereas the Bulls immediately afterwards must tackle the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein; the banana-peel potential looks greater in the latter match.
Where’s your money?
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing