Critical fortnight for Bulls

RYAN VREDE writes the Bulls have placed themselves in the inside lane to top the South African conference but much rests on their performances in the next two weeks.

Unbeaten since their defeat to the Stormers in March (five matches ago), the Bulls have overhauled their great rivals at the summit of the South African conference and, with a two from two return in their opening matches in Australia, have set themselves up for a potentially outstanding tour.

I wrote prior to the tour that the Bulls would have to at least match the Stormers’ three from four tour return to keep their conference challenge strong. They are on course to do that and indeed may yet give themselves some breathing room if they are able to oust the Highlanders and Chiefs.

Both those sides exhibited flaws in their armour at the weekend. The Bulls will be encouraged by their inability to cope with the tactical questions the Hurricanes and Reds asked respectively. They are certainly questions the Bulls can ask with greater efficiency and regularity.

Their victory over the Waratahs in Sydney was significant because it demanded that they explore a depth of character and resolve that was the hallmark of their championship winning sides of 2007, 2009 and 2010. I’m not suggesting the current crop are as good as that vintage, and neither am I asserting that this Bulls side has that character and resolve in equal measure. I’m simply highlighting what appears to be a shared characteristic that is decisive in high-pressure situations.

Furthermore, they continue to embarrass the still widely-held view that they are one-dimensional in their approach. Indeed they lead the competition for tries scored. There remain lingering concerns about their defence. Some of those concerns were eased with a solid performance in this facet of play in Sydney, but a truer measure of their health in this regard will come in the next fortnight against teams capable of exposing potential vulnerabilities the Waratahs were never able to.

There is also confidence to be drawn from Morne Steyn’s upswing in goal-kicking form. When Steyn kicks well for goal the Bulls usually win and in recent weeks the flyhalf has shown why he is the man Heyneke Meyer will back against England, a series the national coach believes could be decided by the boot given the lack of synergy both sides will suffer from.

Winning one of their last two tour matches will be an acceptable achievement, with two setting them up for the conference title provided they don’t lose key players to injury while on national duty in June. They have home matches against the Stormers, Cheetahs and Lions upon their return, with a trip to Kings Park in the mix as well. Tellingly, no South African side matches their win percentage after returning from tour.

That we’re even talking about this side as contenders (let alone potential champions) for the conference title is testament to their astute recruiting, good structures, competent coaching, talent and character. They lost a clutch of senior players at the end of 2011 and were expected to go through a rebuilding period. They’ve defied expectations and on the evidence of what they’ve produced thus far, they’ve earned the right to be spoken about as genuine contenders for the title.