At this stage two years ago the Bulls needed to beat the Reds by 72 points. A one-point victory against the Sharks at King’s Park will suffice but the task won’t be any easier.
The victory margin required is significantly less, but the tactical excellence and character needed to down a Springbok-laden Sharks squad, who may be chasing a play-off place themselves, will be no different.
Fourteen members of the squad that contributed to the impossibly brilliant victory over the Reds at Loftus will be in the match 22 on Saturday. Ten of them are likely to start. Seven of those 10 are World Cup winners. The Bulls have players with a proven track record of handling pressure. It’s a pressure game with the victors likely to be determined by their aptitude for handling pressure. The Bulls hold an edge in this regard.
In the build up to the Reds match, then coach Heyneke Meyer peddled the analogy of how charcoal is transformed into diamond under high pressure and risked his credibility by predicting his team would undergo a diamond transformation against the Reds. They met the challenge.
With 15 minutes remaining the Bulls still required three converted tries. They scored five. It was a night where the collective, not individuals, had to take the bulk of the praise. But the telling contribution of Bryan Habana must not be forgotten.
The Springbok winger had had a quiet tournament up to that point – not dissimilar to the current campaign – but proved to be the galvanising force the Bulls needed, scoring a brace, including a breathtaking solo effort from his 10m line. Two weeks later at King’s Park Habana was the difference again, sinking the Sharks with a championship-winning try after the siren had sounded.
Victory in Durban will hinge largely on the efforts of the collective once more. But the contest lends itself to hero-making. Habana has an opportunity to experience a full-circle moment.
The exposure of his fallibilities and limitations in the last two years have shattered the perception that he is superhuman. However, against the Cheetahs on Saturday, Habana provided a retrospective of the player he once was. It stirred hope that he may yet beat the standing 10 count many respected commentators believe he is on, and recover to enthral and mesmerise in the manner he did in 2005 and to a greater extent in 2007.
The Sharks are battered and beleaguered at present. Three defeats in their last four matches have been telling blows to their psyche, as much as it has been to their title ambitions. However, they remain a formidable unit, who, when venturing close to or touching the ceiling of their potential, are arguably better than any side in the tournament.
They won’t be easy beats on their home track, even if they are out of the play-off reckoning by kick-off. If they are handed a lifeline by favourable results in preceding matches – well that creates an altogether different dynamic.
With the sides so closely matched from a technical and tactical perspective, a flash of individual brilliance and character is what could ultimately decide the result. In Habana, the Bulls possess a game breaker who has threatened to explode after a period of dormancy.
But perhaps more importantly, in their minds they’re diamonds, forged under high pressure.
By Ryan Vrede