Fortnight could sew it up for Bulls
The Vodacom Bulls head into the fortnight before the test season begins knowing all too well that they could sew up the SA conference in this year’s Vodacom Super Rugby tournament before the June break.
Coach Frans Ludeke is not one to make bold predictions, but he did underline the importance of the next few weeks when he admitted that this “phase” of the competition would end after the Bloemfontein showdown with the Cheetahs.
For those who haven’t followed Ludeke’s coaching style over the past few years, it is normal for the Bulls to break up the season in bite-size chunks, setting shorter term goals to position them right when the business end of the competition rolls around.
And while this past weekend heralded the end of their overseas opposition, the Bulls are firmly focused on their next two away fixtures which could swing things firmly in their favour before the June competition break.
While they face a wounded Sharks side looking for some sort of redemption, next weekend they will face off in a potential conference decider with the Toyota Cheetahs and if they can win both they will virtually have the conference sewn up, with games against the Kings and Sharks at home, and Stormers away to end their run.
At the moment the Bulls sit six points ahead of the Cheetahs – although the latter still have a bye. But the Cheetahs also have a tough run-in to the playoffs, needing to travel to face the Stormers in Cape Town and host the Blues at home in their final conference game, neither of which are sure victories for them.
If the Bulls win in Durban and Bloemfontein, they will go into the three-week break knowing they have more than a healthy lead in the conference, then return home for fixtures against the Kings and Sharks at Loftus. If they’ve done the hard work away from home, few teams will be able to stop them at their Loftus Versfeld fortress.
Still, the Bulls have both momentum and confidence at the moment, and are hitting their straps at the right time. While he may not be everyone’s favourite, flyhalf Morne Steyn is deadly with the boot, and is the joint top points-scorer in the competition.
Add to that the fact that with 29 tries, the Bulls have already scored the most in the South African conference and some ominous signs are building.
Still, the most impressive part of their win over the Highlanders was their defence, something the Bulls were not credited for by many observers of Saturday night’s win.
If Sanzar’s own stats are to be believed, the Bulls made a massive 159 tackles on Saturday night -- but they will be extremely frustrated by the stat of 41 missed tackles. While the number doesn’t sound right, it may just underline the fact that the Bulls may have missed the initial tackle, but their scramble defence was able to stop the Highlanders, who kept on attacking to the end.
Considering the Highlanders carried the ball a massive 701 metres in the game, the Bulls scoreline looks even more impressive, and shows how clinical they were when they did have ball in hand.
Either way, while the Bulls have faced two weeks of New Zealand teams trying to avoid lineouts and run them off their feet, the chances are a more traditional, physical arm wrestle is on the cards in Durban.
And for this they will face a lot tougher challenge from the Sharks who are looking to find some pride again after a tough season which has disappointed their fans.
The added spice of having the Du Plessis brothers back, as well as veteran Butch James will make the task even more difficult for the Bulls.
But the reward, if they do manage to pull off this tough assignment, and the one in Bloemfontein, is a return to Loftus for a big run to secure a home semi for the playoffs.
With that in their sights, it may be foolish to bet against them.