The Bulls’ vast experience in play-off matches gives them a priceless advantage against the Sharks, writes RYAN VREDE.
The majority of those in the squad the Bulls will bring to Durban have been through the mincer and come out intact. It’s been a major contributing factor to their success in recent years, and will be again on Saturday.
The Sharks will no doubt take heart from having inflicted one of only two defeats (one draw) the Bulls have suffered in a Currie Cup final dating back nine matches to 2002. The side they’ll name for the semi-final will feature 11 of the players who helped secure that 14-9 victory at Kings Park in 2008.
However, the players missing from that match 22 are significant – Frans Steyn, Ruan Pienaar, Johann Muller, JP Pietersen, Frederic Michalak, Brad Barritt, Waylon Murray Jean Deysel, Deon Carstens, Albert van den Berg and John Smit. All internationals, and six World Cup winners with the Springboks in 2007.
The absence of Smit (who underwent surgery to repair damaged vertebrae) will be telling. Certainly the Springbok captain has endured his worst year form-wise, but his experience and calming aura would have been invaluable in a match of this magnitude.
The Bulls will also field a vastly different squad to the one that was ousted on that October afternoon, but a strong argument can be made that it is a better one, one that secured the Super 14 and Currie Cup title the following year.
In Victor Matfield, Bakkies Botha, Danie Rossouw, Morné Steyn, Jaco van der Westhuyzen and Wynand Olivier they have a massively experienced senior core, while the remainder of the starting line-up boast impressive CV’s. Their youngsters, Gerhard van den Heever, Dewald Potgieter and Francois Hougaard, have proven their aptitude against the finest players in the southern hemisphere in Super Rugby, and the latter duo haven’t looked out of their depth against the world’s best at Test level. The Sharks simply cannot match that experience.
Veteran Stefan Terblanche’s consistency has embarrassed players a decade younger, but beyond him there is much promise but no certainty of a performance befitting the occasion, something the likes of Steyn, Matfield, Botha, Rossouw and Olivier have consistently delivered.
To predict a walkover would be foolish, and the Sharks could push the Bulls close if they are still in touch with a quarter remaining given that they boast a more dynamic bench. But the Bulls have repelled better teams than this Sharks side, and will have the temperament to close out the match should it come to a late onslaught.
You can’t coach temperament. It’s gained through winning and losing close, high-pressure matches. And superior temperament, gained through experience, is why the Bulls will be contesting yet another final in a fortnight.