Jake White returns to Pretoria in his greatest Super Rugby challenge as coach of the Brumbies.
The Bulls historically have towered over the opposition in Super Rugby play-off matches, especially those from overseas.
The Chiefs took 60 points in a final and the Crusaders were humbled twice in Pretoria and once at the Orlando Stadium in Soweto.
White, though, believes he has the formula to beat the Bulls – and he has one victory against them this season to back it up after the Brumbies edged the Bulls 23-20 in Canberra.
White’s Brumbies smashed the Sharks in Durban earlier in the year but outside of that they have struggled with the South African physicality. The Stormers beat them well in Cape Town and the Kings scored four tries in securing a famous draw in Canberra.
The Brumbies showed the greater composure against the Cheetahs in winning Sunday’s play-off 15-13 in Canberra. The Cheetahs were explosive in the last 15 minutes but on balance the Brumbies were the better side and they edged the collisions and certainly made a greater impact in the second half on their scrum put in.
The match was in the balance with the Brumbies leading 9-8 but the Brumbies tortured the Cheetahs scrum on too many occasions in the 15-minute period between 50 and 65 minutes. It relieved pressure and it also secured them three invaluable points in the context of the match.
The Cheetahs, thanks to the impact of replacement scrumhalf Sarel Pretorius, upped the tempo in the final 15 minutes and only then did the Cheetahs resemble the side that had wowed so many in the league stages.
But the confidence wasn’t there on the night.
Cheetahs captain Adriaan Strauss, by opting to turn down two kickable penalties from right in front on 72 and 74 minutes respectively, acknowledged afterwards that he wasn’t convinced his team could take the three and actually work their way back into a try-scoring position. He said it had been a struggle all night for his team to get near the Brumbies tryline.
The Cheetahs best hope was to score a converted try and take the match into extra time and then win the game through penalty kicks.
It so nearly worked when replacement wing Rayno Benjamin scored in the 79th minute but the touchline conversion was always going to be a lottery and fortunate on this occasion did not favour the brave as Riaan Smit’s conversion just missed.
The Cheetahs lack of play-off experience showed in the first hour. They were too passive and when they did get early possession they were too frantic is forcing offloads and risk passes. The patience that has characterized their game wasn’t there, even in the final five minutes when they pushed for a converted try that would take the game into extra time.
The Brumbies surprised me with the ease in which they put the Cheetahs scrum under pressure in the second half and White’s Brumbies will also attack the Bulls scrum, which bizarrely has been poor and vulnerable for most of the season.
The Bulls lineout has suffered in the absence of Juandre Kruger, Arno Botha and Pierre Spies, and the effort in Cape Town a week ago against the Stormers was second rate.
The Bulls will have to play bloody well to beat the Brumbies, even though the match is in Pretoria.
The Brumbies, when all the pieces of the puzzle fit, have produced some breathtaking displays. It’s when a few pieces go missing that the Brumbies go missing.
A capacity crowd in Pretoria is a great boost for the Bulls and the core of this Brumbies team would not have experienced that kind of atmosphere. White knows the challenge but the Bulls would be playing with the sort of fire they can’t handle if they underestimate the quality of the Brumbies and also the tactical acumen of a Brumbies coach who has spent most of his life coaching South African players.
The Brumbies, under White, play more like a South African than an Australian side, so expect Saturday at Loftus to be as physical as any South African derby. Expect the match to also take the shape of any South African derby.
The set piece will be an area both teams target and both will prioritise playing the percentages.
It’s going to be a great game in Pretoria but the match of the tournament will happen in Hamilton where New Zealand’s two best teams meet in the early semi-final.
South Africans will be willing a Crusaders win because that would create the opportunity of a Bulls home final, should the Bulls beat the Brumbies.
Should the Chiefs succeed then the winner at Loftus would have to travel to Hamilton.
It’s going to be the best weekend of Super Rugby so far because the four best teams are playing for the right to be the best of 2013.
And that’s the way it should be.