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Bulls offer best balance

After twelve rounds of Super Rugby the cream of the South African conference finally seems to have risen to the top. The Bulls have emerged as South Africa’s best bet to claim the conference championship.

Having returned from a disappointing Australasian tour, the Bulls responded in the best possible fashion by stampeding to a hat-trick of wins in as many weeks.

Frans Ludeke’s charges seem to have hit their straps at just the right time and now have to be considered as true title contenders. In my view, the bye comes at an inopportune time for the men from Pretoria who had built up an impressive head of steam.

Many rugby pundits are hailing the Bulls’ new-found expansive style of play for their recent upsurge in results. However, I feel this is far too simplistic an argument.

While the Bulls have scored a fair few tries in recent weeks, I don’t agree that they have suddenly neglected their famous blueprint in favour of all-out attack. I believe that their recent impressive performances are owing to a principle which is best described as offensive defence.

This principle ensures that your defence becomes an attacking weapon as the sheer pressure and line speed employed forces teams into making unforced errors, thereby conceding turnovers.

Statistically, as we are aware, a fair amount of tries stem from turnovers. For example, this past weekend the Bulls’ defence pressurised the Hurricanes’ attack to such an extent that the visitors were virtually forced into giving the ball air in all the wrong areas of the field. The pressure the Bulls’ defence exerted was simply overbearing.

Statistically, the Stormers may be the best defence in the competition but I believe it’s flawed to measure the success of a side’s defence by merely counting the number of tries conceded. The best defences are not necessarily those that have conceded the least amount of dot-downs.

The Stormers may be regarded by many observers to possess the best defensive system in the competition, but the reality is that the Bulls’ defence has more strings to its bow.

In my view, the worth of an offensive defence is invaluable in a competition as demanding as Super Rugby. Possessing this weapon in your arsenal is likely to prove the difference when the season reaches its climax.

A man who has been instrumental in the Bulls’ recent success is Morne Steyn. He is a dead-eye in front of goal, a neat distributor and an experienced campaigner who seldom makes mistakes. I believe that Steyn’s value will only be truly appreciated once he has left South African shores.

The Pretoria-based side have exciting young flyhalves coming through the ranks but in a few months’ time, I believe Bulls bosses will be left to rue their decision to release the record-breaking pivot.

The Sharks and Stormers – now into the third week of their travels – both find themselves at a crucial crossroad in their respective seasons. They currently occupy ninth and tenth place on the overall log standings.

The playoffs are slowly slipping away from the coastal sides and the hill to the summit of Super Rugby becomes ever harder to climb. However, I’m reluctant to write off either of their chances in the South African conference as there are still a number of local derbies to be played on their return from the Antipodes.

Owing to the fact the Sharks have been decimated by injury this season, it would be a remarkable achievement if they could pull a rabbit out of the hat and beat the Reds on Friday. The Sharks relish the underdog tag but I believe the home side will overpower the depleted Durban outfit.

Meanwhile, the Stormers face the daunting task of fronting the Waratahs, currently the most potent attacking force in the competition. It’s a fascinating contest which pits a solid defence against a stellar attack.

As I’m aware of the way the Stormers prepare, I have a sneaky suspicion that the Cape side will have a tidy plan in place to counter the likes of rugby league convert Israel Folau, who has been exceptional on attack.

The Stormers will know that they simply cannot allow the ‘Tahs to prosper from broken play and it’s essential that they gain territorial ascendancy. I’m tipping the Stormers to sneak home.

Similarly, the Cheetahs who return from a well-earned bye will have to ensure that their new-found defensive resilience holds up against a dangerous Hurricanes attacking unit.

Unlike seasons past, I believe the Cheetahs now have the defensive principles in place to hold out the Hurricanes. That said, the biggest danger for Naka Drotske’s men is to sit back and become complacent. They must now go on and attempt to win the South African conference. I’m backing them to beat the ‘Canes.

The Kings can be proud of their efforts this season but the reality is that they now need to start preparing for their promotion/relegation date with the Lions. All the noises emanating from Port Elizabeth have been positive this week but I’m afraid I don’t see them stopping the rot against the Highlanders.

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