RYAN VREDE writes the Bulls have to match or better the Stormers’ three from four tour return in order to keep pace with the Cape side in the South African conference.
With the Sharks struggling to mount a serious challenge in the conference, the all important top spot is likely to come down to a shoot-out between the Bulls and Stormers. The latter hold the advantage of having completed their tour – beating the Reds, Highlanders and Force – and in having four of their last seven matches at home, three of which are against the lowly Lions, Cheetahs and Rebels.
The tour schedule was undoubtedly kinder to the Stormers than it has turned out to be for the Bulls. They will be expected to beat the Rebels in Melbourne on Friday, but matches against the Waratahs, Highlanders and irrepressible Chiefs pose significantly greater tests of their credentials.
In 2011 they beat the Force and Chiefs comfortably but lost to the Blues and Reds. The Chiefs will be a significantly improved opponent this time around, having developed a pragmatic dimension to their game that they’ve lacked in the past, while not sacrificing their ability to strike with ball-in-hand. The match in Hamilton comes at the end of what will be a physically and mentally taxing tour and any victory there will require astute tactics and immense mental resolve in equal measure.
With the Highlanders having improved markedly since last season, the Bulls will be targeting the Rebels and Waratahs as their must-win matches of the tour. However, coach Frans Ludeke stressed the importance of a week to week focus.
‘The conference is so close that a bad tour could see the Stormers pull ahead and get some breathing room. We have to make sure we’re on top of our game throughout this month. We aren’t taking any team lightly. We respect every team’s ability and know that there are no soft targets in Super Rugby,’ he said.
The Bulls’ best tour return came in 2007 when they won three from five en route to becoming the first South African side to win the tournament. They have toured relatively well since, earning some crucial victories on the road.
‘The mindset is one of enjoyment,’ Ludeke said. ‘In my experience with the Bulls the boys have always enjoyed touring. I’m not sure that was always the case but that 2007 tour changed how we approach tours. We know we have a mission to complete. This is the third phase of our campaign and it will be crucial to how we are placed for the home stretch of the tournament.’
The Bulls have no serious injury concerns and are expected to name a similar side to the one that beat the Brumbies at Loftus a fortnight ago, with openside flank Deon Stegmann set to be included in the run-on side after a couple of weeks sidelined with a hamstring injury.