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    S15: Bulls, Sharks hit ground running

    2019-02-16 22:20
    Duane Vermeulen
    Duane Vermeulen (Gallo Images)

    Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

    Cape Town - Let’s guard against loudly trumpeting the “new” Bulls too soon.

    They were under fresh management last year also, of course, as John Mitchell plotted them to a memorable 21-19 Loftus triumph over the strong Hurricanes in their opening Super Rugby fixture ... only to recede to a 12th-placed overall finish.

    Nevertheless, they possibly made an even bigger early-doors statement this time, with Pote Human now masterminding their game-plan, as they utterly ransacked fierce local rivals the Stormers 40-3 in Pretoria on Saturday for a full house of log points.

    Almost as satisfyingly, the Sharks picked up five points as well and looked just as switched-on for the most part as they breezed past the Sunwolves 45-10 in Singapore.

    That might sound like a par-for-the-course sort of outcome against perennial strugglers, but remember that the Japanese franchise earned shock home wins against each of the Bulls and Stormers in 2018, so Robert du Preez’s charges doing the business so comfortably represented an encouraging start for the Durban-based team.

    But the ease with which the Bulls, three times past champions, subdued the strife-torn Capetonians was the dominant South African talking point on Saturday evening.

    The Stormers were delayed in getting to Loftus by a freeway accident, forcing a 20 minute-late start, but whether you want to call Robbie Fleck’s charges road kill or a train smash, they were clinically taken apart in a four-tries-to-nil drubbing.

    Handre Pollard’s unerring performance off the kicking tee also helped to swell the scoreboard, and he was the official player of the match.

    While far from a bad call, several team-mates were right up there with him for a combination of polish and hunger: you could not have grumbled had any of the electric Rosko Specman (he gave poor Stormers fullback Dillyn Leyds defensive nightmares in the first quarter), Warrick Gelant, Jesse Kriel, captain Lood de Jager or ex-Stormers favourite Duane Vermeulen grabbed the mantle instead.

    Veteran Vermeulen delivering a thunderous performance at No 8 was an especially bitter pill for the visitors to swallow, as he tore into several opponents who were accustomed to having him as a hard-nosed team-mate at varying stages between 2009 and 2015.

    He provided the special brand of go-forward for which he has long been famed, and only reminded of his status as a key cog in the Springbok plans for RWC 2019 later in the year.

    While the Bulls scrum went backwards a few times on Saturday - offering very, very fleeting moments for some high-fiving in the Stormers ranks - even in that department his rich experience came to the fore as he is adept at dealing smartly with the ball at the base even when his pack is under some pressure.

    As much as they ripped the visiting defence to shreds at times out wide, this thrashing was also engineered by the Bulls’ eye-catching commitment and organisation on defence: the Stormers actually had significantly more carries than they did (apparently 97-70) but more often than not they were unceremoniously bashed backwards or forced into ponderous, conviction-lacking and lateral attacks from behind the advantage line that inevitably ended in costly mistakes or turnovers.

    Already afflicted to injuries to some key personnel, the Newlands-based team had a further setback when leader Siya Kolisi left the park for possible concussion-related issues during the first half and failed to return although, in truth, the Springbok captain had been largely anonymous to that point in a generally outwitted and outmuscled Stormers loose trio.

    The Bulls’ massively impressive line-out on paper also did not disappoint: the likes of De Jager and Vermeulen gave the Stormers the yips in that department early on; they frittered away all of their first five throw-ins before stabilising a bit, in fairness, later on ... when the horse had long bolted.

    “Totally outplayed in all facets,” was the uncomfortable SuperSport studio verdict of former Stormers and Bok stalwart Jean de Villiers afterwards.

    While the Bulls will take huge confidence into their tough trip to Buenos Aires to play the Jaguares next weekend, it hardly gets any easier for the Stormers as they entertain the Lions, tournament runners-up in each of the last three seasons.

    Next weekend’s fixtures (home teams first, all kick-offs SA time):

    Friday: Highlanders v Reds, 08:35. Saturday: Sunwolves v Waratahs, 06:15; Crusaders v Hurricanes, 08:35; Brumbies v Chiefs, 10:45; Sharks v Blues, 15:05; Stormers v Lions, 17:15; Jaguares v Bulls, 23:40. Bye: Rebels.

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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    Fixtures

    Saturday, 23 March 2019
    • Hurricanes v Stormers, Westpac Stadium 08:35
    • Waratahs v Crusaders, Sydney Cricket Ground 10:45
    • Sunwolves v Lions, Singapore National Stadium 12:55
    • Bulls v Chiefs, Loftus Versfeld 15:05
    • Sharks v Rebels, Jonsson Kings Park Stadium 17:15
    Sunday, 24 March 2019
    • Reds v Brumbies, Suncorp Stadium 07:05
    Friday, 29 March 2019
    • Hurricanes v Crusaders, Westpac Stadium 08:35
    • Waratahs v Sunwolves, McDonald Jones Stadium 10:45

    Logs

    Rank Team P W Pts
    • Bulls (Q)
    • Lions (wc)
    • Stormers (wc)
    • Sharks (wc)
    • Jaguares

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