Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - It is tough enough for South African sides to tackle Super Rugby’s most successful team, the Crusaders, in their own backyard at the best of times.
But so much else points only to the proverbial “difficult day” for the Bulls in Christchurch on Friday (08:35 SA time).
Just for one thing, the most formidable fixture of all in the competition for John Mitchell’s generally young, rebuilding charges comes at the dangerous back end of a hitherto winless main overseas leg for them - very much that time when “one foot on the plane syndrome” can become an additional, mental hazard.
The Bulls put a truly herculean effort into their last match, when they stunned the Chiefs with a four-try blitz in the first half in Hamilton - they led 28-14 at the break - before losing steam and cruelly even failing right at the death even to bank a deserved losing bonus point in a 41-28 reverse.
Naturally the formidably street-wise Crusaders will have made some notes about how strongly the Bulls charged from the blocks last week and be extremely wary of allowing that to happen again for the second time in a row by the Highvelders on New Zealand soil.
So it might even mean that it is the Bulls, instead, having to play some kind of catch-up this time around … and whether they will have the legs for that in the closing 40 minutes or so, just before the long trek home, is a matter for speculation.
Bear in mind also that this will be a fairly peeved, properly motivated Crusaders XV, considering that the defending champions are on a rare run of consecutive defeats: albeit to similarly strong home-based rivals the Highlanders and Hurricanes (and away from home so no special cause for alarm bells).
Nevertheless, the ‘Saders have dropped to third in the NZ conference and sixth on an overall basis, so they will regard a full-house comeback victory over the Bulls as a non-negotiable, really.
Being able to reinfuse key, leadership figures like Sam Whitelock in the second row and muscular Ryan Crotty in midfield after respective concussions is just another reason for the bookies and neutral onlookers to be heavily weighted in favour of a home triumph in this one.
The other question is this: just how much belief will Mitchell be able to drum into his relative greenhorns that they are capable of upsetting these foes, considering how significant Bulls leads against each of the Reds and Chiefs have still seen them come up demoralizingly short in the win column?
But there is another slightly distracting matter that the Bulls simply cannot ignore.
In a slightly wretched development for them in rostering terms this year, they fly straight back - body clocks challenged by the big, slow adjustment in time-zones - from the tour and slap-bang into a crunch derby against old southern rivals the Stormers at Loftus next Saturday.
There is every likelihood, on the fair assumption that the Bulls come up short in Christchurch again, that it will become a vital date for the Loftus-based side in stabilising their season; part of a quest for a tidy run of rectifying victories back on SA soil to still challenge for the knockout phase.
Doing well in Pretoria, at very least, will be essential for that to happen, and the Bulls do already boast the very praiseworthy scalp of the Hurricanes before their own faithful a few weeks ago.
Once they have played the Stormers, the Bulls have a bye (how they might have wished things were the other way around?) preceding a further five fixtures all in South Africa before they are next on an international flight to play the Jaguares once-off in Buenos Aires.
Despite the inevitable risk of tour fatigue, the Bulls will be hell-bent on revitalising their campaign against the Capetonians, so Mitchell faces the tricky task on Friday of monitoring the workload of his core individuals to ensure there will something left in the tank for the derby eight days onward.
So don’t be too surprised, if the Bulls are lagging behind by a reasonable tally of points on the Christchurch scoreboard in the second half, to see a virtual “white flag” being raised and the Bulls emptying the bench expansively to think a little longer-term.
Naturally that is much less likely to occur if the Bulls, not lacking in exciting talent on paper, are right in the contest against the ‘Saders.
But just don’t count on that, based on recent Crusaders home history against South African outfits: they have mostly been earning crushing triumphs from 2015 onwards.
The last “good” season for SA against the Crusaders away was 2014, when the Stormers only succumbed 14-13 and the Sharks earned the last triumph against them there (30-25).
Even then, when the Sharks revisited later in that season for a semi-final, retribution was fierce as the Crusaders prevailed 38-6.
Here are all Crusaders home results against SA teams from 2015:
Beat Cheetahs 57-14 (2015)
Beat Lions 34-6 (2015)
Beat Kings 57-24 (2016)
Beat Stormers 57-24 (2017)
Beat Stormers 45-28 (2018)
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