RYAN VREDE writes the Bulls can lay down a marker with victories against three of last year’s semi-finalists in the next three weeks.
The schedule hasn’t been kind to the Bulls, pitting them against the defending champion Reds and seven-time winners Crusaders at Loftus, with a trip to the Stormers sandwiched in between.
The Bulls started the season well with wins against the Sharks and Cheetahs, but come off a defeat to the Blues, a side they were widely expected to beat. The manner of that loss disappointed them. Coach Frans Ludeke and captain Pierre Spies lamented their lack of composure under the pressure the Blues created with their structured and largely dominant defence, as well as their ill-discipline which allowed flyhalf Gareth Anscombe to keep the Blues out of reach.
The Blues profited from two errors to score their two tries, but their ability to successfully suppress their natural expansive instinct in favour of a more conservative, territory-based game was key. They also matched the Bulls physically and at the set phases, which compromised their host’s cause to settle into their suffocating pattern.
The Reds, Stormers and Crusaders will pose superior threats in this regard. The Reds capitulated in the face of an inspired second half performance from the Sharks at Kings Park on Saturday, but they again showed their ability to mix it in the heavies and indeed to play a pragmatic brand when the opposition demands it. Certainly their threat will be reduced if Mike Harris fails to recover from a hamstring injury sustained against the Sharks. Harris is among the tournament’s most accurate goal-kickers and will be central to any victory at Loftus.
On the derby at Newlands, the Bulls have in the recent past felt the Stormers were vulnerable to the tactic of kicking deep and waiting for them to succumb to the temptation of running the ball back. They would back their chasing line to dominate and/or isolate ball carriers, at which time they would force the penalty or turnover.
However, the Stormers have reconstructed their attacking approach to something that closely resembles the one the Bulls have implemented successfully against them. Furthermore they are no longer a soft touch in the set phases. Indeed a strong case can be made that they are superior to the Pretoria franchise. They have the capacity, through their excellent and disciplined defence, to turn the tables on their great rivals, forcing them to revert to an expansive brand they are not as adept at.
Likewise, the Crusaders have often forced the Bulls to veer from their trusted method, and while the absence of Dan Carter and Richie McCaw dilutes their potency, they remain formidable opponents with the ability to stifle the Bulls in the same manner the Stormers can. They do, however, possess the added threat of superior ball-in-hand attack, particularly in their back division.
Ludeke explained to this site that the matches leading up to last week’s bye as ‘phase one’ of their campaign. The second phase will be the most testing of the tournament’s pool phase. Home wins are crucial if they hope to top the conference. They dropped four games in Pretoria in 2011. Ludeke has continually stressed the importance of solidity on their patch. That starts with a victory over the Reds on Saturday.
Losses in the next three weeks won’t be terminal to their ambitions but it will certainly have a destabilising effect, particularly with a testing tour on the horizon. Victories, first prize being three of them on the bounce, would instil an invaluable measure of self-belief.