Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – Soberingly, just over 10,000 people were coaxed to Emirates Airline Park on Saturday, and apparently a little under that figure to Loftus.
Neither Super Rugby gate will have pleased the bean counters, you can be sure … especially as this is early season when interest ought to be particularly high yet there have been some low turnouts at various venues competition-wide.
That should change greatly for the better at the Pretoria venue next weekend, when the Lions – two from two and picking up a nice head of steam -- drive up the motorway for a Highveld derby (Saturday, 17:15) with a Bulls team likely to be ecstatic from a famous 21-19 triumph over the respected Hurricanes in their first fixture of the season.
Former Springbok and Stormers captain Corne Krige, a neutral from much further south, was moved to say on Twitter afterwards that he was “super impressed (with the Bulls) … if they can continue to combine power with skill they will be very successful”.
Considering how high-riding the ‘Canes have been in recent times – champions in 2016, the third most log points last year – the result represented a fabulous start for the intended resurrection of the Bulls under the charge of John Mitchell.
As early as the first three minutes, before the disappointingly modest audience, the home side already looked unrecognisable from the outfit who staggered through 2017, ending 15th of the 18 teams and winning only four of 15 matches.
They shifted their attack from one side of the unusually lush park to the other, patient and purposeful, before the avalanche of phases was rewarded with left wing Johnny Kotze (as big-hearted a performance as any teammate) romping over.
Of course the wily, free-spirited ‘Canes don’t exactly lose their composure or lustre in such situations, and quickly got into the contest themselves.
The try count ended up being three apiece, but few could have begrudged the Bulls their upset triumph.
There has so clearly been a serious, collective upskilling at Loftus and that was especially evident in the first half.
But they also proved after the break that certain time-honoured Bulls hallmarks remain, showing limb-clattering commitment and physicality when play inevitably lost some tempo on the heavy pitch and in the thin air at this fledgling stage of the competition.
The general relish of the Bulls pack, notably raw experience-wise in certain berths, was aided in no small measure by the towering performances – and not just because they are very lanky men – of locks RG Snyman and Lood de Jager.
They put themselves about tirelessly both at close quarters and in open play, the former making a couple of long-range charges in the clear and in one instance fittingly offloading to his second-row companion for a pleasing touch-down in the corner with two defenders trying desperately to barge him out.
When they necessarily get down to watching the Loftus video closely, the Lions, runners-up for the last two years, will be left in no doubt that they’re in for a major scrap next weekend.
But they will also do so feeling pretty chipper about their own game after respective early home victories over the Sharks and Jaguares.
The Lions only cranked up their attacking desire against the Argentineans in their latest clash (47-27), even if execution didn’t match good intention and progressive spirit on many occasions -- which helped prevent a proper rout for the tourists.
Still, by notching seven tries to three, Warren Whiteley’s men comfortably banked the maximum of five points from the encounter and there was lots to like about their almost ceaseless enterprise, nippy wings Aphiwe Dyantyi and Sylvian Mahuza again revelling as a result.
Whether the Bulls are capable of claiming another heavyweight scalp next Saturday is an intriguing question, but one that should do a power of good to ticket sales.
In last year’s Super Rugby, the Lions humiliated their neighbours 51-14 in the lone clash in Johannesburg, but the Bulls clearly seem hell-bent on preventing outcomes like that in 2018.
Next weekend’s fixtures (home teams first, all kick-offs SA time):
Friday: Blues v Chiefs, 08:35; Reds v Brumbies, 11:00. Saturday: Crusaders v Stormers, 08:35; Sunwolves v Rebels, 11:00; Sharks v Waratahs, 15:05; Bulls v Lions, 17:15; Jaguares v Hurricanes, 23:40. Bye: Highlanders.
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