Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - They are traditional South African powerhouses of Super Rugby ... but you wouldn’t have thought so based on their stuttering home wins over altogether more humble opponents at the weekend.
Both the Bulls, three-time past champions, and Sharks looked alarmingly shambolic for long periods en route to their laboured respective triumphs - damagingly without a bonus point, in either instance - over the Sunwolves (Friday) and Kings (Saturday).
At least there was a bit more of a gap on the scoreboard in the Loftus fixture, which the hosts clinched 34-21, whereas the Sharks were even more joyless and lacking in gumption and gusto in eking out a 19-17 result after a veritable snore-fest against their visitors from Port Elizabeth.
Indeed, Robert du Preez’s charges were one late, long and angled penalty miss by old boy Lionel Cronje away from the rank embarrassment of Durban defeat to the much-maligned, cash-strapped franchise.
Yes, the basic wins were at least banked, but in performance terms neither the Sharks nor Bulls looked remotely ready, based on this fourth-round evidence, for tricky little periods on the immediate horizon for both.
The Bulls will know that heartbreak looms in both of their next two matches on New Zealand soil - against the Blues, then Chiefs - if major improvement isn’t engineered in a great hurry.
Before they even return, there is a long detour to Tokyo to play the Sunwolves all over again in their own habitat, and that suddenly looks a relative toughie, too.
They will have former Springbok captain Adriaan Strauss back as skipper and to beef their set-piece play at an opportune time, as a poor tour (even two defeats from the trio of fixtures would leave them well off the competition pace, with a two-wins-from-six record) is unlikely to bring the Pretoria public streaming through the gates thereafter with any genuine title hopes in mind.
Already, after three games each, the Bulls are as many as eight points adrift of the Stormers, who have just enjoyed a bye, in Africa Conference 1.
The Capetonians click back into action in round five with a once-off trip to foreign climes to tackle the Sunwolves in their second home of Singapore - and there are at least two reasons why they should be wide awake to the need to keep their eyes firmly on the ball.
Firstly, they will have noticed the Japanese team’s pluckiness, if not a whole lot else, at Loftus, and the second point to consider is the collective memory of their own infamous lethargy when they played those foes in the same, steamy Singapore last season.
The Stormers only salvaged a 17-17 draw with the last move of the match then, as tighthead prop Vincent Koch barrelled over powerfully.
Meanwhile Sharks enthusiasts may at least take some comfort from the fact that they ought to field much closer to a regular “first XV” when they face the Cheetahs in an away derby on Saturday.
The gamble with rookie Benhard Janse van Rensburg at flyhalf bombed against the Kings - he was hesitant and unassertive - and there will be pressure on coach Du Preez to either give Garth April a start (he brought some vital life and width to proceedings off the bench) or move twinkle-toed Curwin Bosch in from No 15 to spark a blunt Sharks back division in Bloemfontein.
They could do with securing another victory there, because the next challenge will be a monumental one in Africa Conference 2 in Johannesburg against the altogether more smooth-firing Lions, who thrashed the Reds by 30 points on Saturday and gradually built a pleasing head of attacking steam along the way.
Before they can chew on the refreshing qualities of a bye, the Sharks also have to tackle the fast-improving Jaguares - effectively the Argentina national team - in Durban, so that will be another occasion where the insipidness of their Kings showing simply cannot be repeated.
For their part, the Kings will have been heartened in many ways by the manner in which their unashamedly niggling, spoiling tactics - that’s not intended as a significant criticism! - so nearly produced an upset over the Sharks.
The wily Lions will have made spirited mental notes from that game for Saturday’s clash in the Friendly City, and this writer will be among those suspecting they will find constructive counter-methods to make it considerably less of a heart-stopper in their favour …
Next round of fixtures (home teams first, all kick-offs SA time):
Friday, March 24
Crusaders v Force - 08:35
Rebels v Waratahs - 10:45
Saturday, March 25
Blues v Bulls - 08:35
Brumbies v Highlanders - 10:45
Sunwolves v Stormers - 12:55
Kings v Lions - 15:05
Cheetahs v Sharks - 17:15
Jaguares v Reds - 23:40
Byes: Hurricanes, Chiefs