Chiefs the Bulls’ biggest test

RYAN VREDE writes the Chiefs’ all-round quality is something the Bulls have yet to encounter and it will require an almighty effort to win a critical encounter in Hamilton.

After two consecutive tour wins which elicited talk of their best-ever trip Down Under, the Bulls’ loss to the Highlanders at the weekend and victory for the Stormers in Cape Town makes Friday’s trip to Hamilton a crucial one in the context of their conference challenge.

The Chiefs’ emergence as arguably the tournament’s most complete side makes Friday’s task a daunting one. The influence of former All Blacks assistant coach Wayne Smith as well as the rise of talented forwards has seen the Chiefs exhibit a far more structured approach than they have in recent years.

Tactically they’ve generally been intelligent, patient and purposeful, combining a good kicking game with powerful forward play, while not losing their ability to dazzle in the back division and improving their defence markedly (second best record in the tournament). Continuity in selection, facilitated by luck with injuries in comparison to some other elite franchises, has amplified their challenge.

The Bulls are yet to face a team that is as comprehensively equipped and doing so away from home heightens their challenge. Certainly the Stormers and Crusaders – their most testing assignments to date – are high quality opposition. But the Cape side’s attacking struggles have been well documented, while the Christchurch outfit were still in the process of finding their stride when they lost at Loftus.

Much of the public and media focus will be on Sonny Bill Williams, who features prominently in the statistics for the key performance areas on attack for a No 12. He is fourth for most metres run, joint third for linebreaks, joint fourth for linebreak assists. He also leads the tournament for most successful tackle offloads.

Williams has the capacity to exposes defensive lapses, but the Chiefs’ threat extends beyond the midfielder. Outside of Williams they have five players in the top 20 for linebreaks and five more in linebreaks assists, as well as the tournament’s leading try scorer, Sona Taumalolo. They have also been defensively excellent (none of their players feature in the top 20 for missed tackles).

In Dunedin the Bulls’ kicking game lacked the clinical edge it has when they’ve been at their most dangerous, and while their gainline fight was good, their protection of the ball on the deck wasn’t, which offered the Highlanders numerous opportunities to slow their recycle or turnover possession. It is imperative that these two facets of their play are on point. The Chiefs have displayed a tendency to revisit their cavalier nature when pinned in their territory for extended periods and if the Bulls can exploit this vulnerability they will improve their chance of victory.

That demands an excellent defensive performance to operate in conjunction with a good kicking game, and while the Bulls have progressed in this regard since the fortnight where they conceded a a string of tries against the Brumbies and Rebels, the Highlanders picked at those scabs at the weekend and a better side (which the Chiefs undoubtedly are) would have been more clinical with the chances they created.

Furthermore the Bulls’ ill-discipline continues to undermine their challenge, with scrum penalties being a point of grave concern. Coach Frans Ludeke stressed that they were working hard on remedying this, and with Aaron Cruden proving to be an accomplished goal-kicker, improvements in this department need to be made immediately.