Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – Less than the favourites for their Super Rugby quarter-final in the Cake Tin?
That’s still very hard to deny.
But there’s also a late-season trend toward consistency, increased grit and vibrancy about the Bulls team … enough to suggest that they won’t simply pitch up off a long-haul flight to play rollover to the Hurricanes on Saturday.
Pote Human’s charges enter the game, after all, on a heartening enough run in the last few weeks that has seen them only lose once (to the Brumbies in Canberra) in five matches.
While the period includes two draws – unusually in New Zealand each time, including against co-quarter-finalists the Highlanders – it does seem to demonstrate a renewed sense of resilience about the current Bulls squad, and at a handy bend in the road.
Especially bearing in mind that the generally productive spell encompassed four overseas-staged fixtures, it suggested that the Loftus-based side have finally been breaking free of a depressing trend in schizophrenic performances – acceptably warm one week, lamentably cold the next – from the quartet of South African sides in the 2019 competition.
From the very outset of this year’s hostilities, a glance at the roster quickly made me (and there may have been others) fear that the lateness of the Bulls’ Australasian tour would prove to be their passion-killer; a catalyst for their disappearance from knockout contention even if they seemed right in the running ahead of it.
Instead it was anything but: they kept gnawing away in log points terms, culminating in their refreshingly high-tempo, seven-try destruction job on neighbours the Lions (48-27) in Pretoria on Saturday.
The result was enough to ensure them of best-placed overall finish (fifth) by a strictly SA-based team after ordinary season … and deservedly so, in the final analysis.
It remains more than a little ominous, of course, that the Argentinean “guests” in the SA conference, the Jaguares, topped the group and by a comfortable distance. They now have a better chance than any non-New Zealand outfit of winning the 2019 title.
The completed gap between the Jaguares and Bulls was 10 points, but remember that it might have been considerably closer had the Highveld side not royally botched the Loftus encounter against that very outfit back in early April.
They got fatally careless in the closing minutes – when they leaked two tries – to be pipped 22-20 after having laid solid foundations for what should have been a home triumph, perhaps even with the Jaguares not earning a losing bonus point on the day.
What happened instead, then, might be called a seven-point swing: the match seemingly set for four log points to nil in the Bulls’ favour, the South Americans gleefully burgled a four-one advantage … maybe also the moment they realised the conference really could be won by them for the first time.
It cannot be denied that the Bulls have had a few video nasties during the course of the programme: it is still not much more than a month, for example, since defending champions (and hotly tipped for title-retention) the Crusaders raided Loftus mercilessly for a 45-13 victory.
Yet in some ways that only makes what has occurred subsequently, with the Bulls stabilising to a very noticeable degree, that much more admirable.
Are they, perhaps, finally getting it all together in terms of realising how Human, in his first year as the dedicated head coach, wants them to play both tactically and style-wise?
Just lately, they have been good at getting beneath opponents’ skins physically (granted, an old Bulls hallmark) but also making more thrust-laden and even charismatic raids over the advantage line.
Helping a great deal recently, too, is that they generally haven’t lost as many of their players in key “spinal” berths to injuries, when compared with other SA sides who have fizzled out at least partly under the strain of that affliction: the Stormers come readily to mind.
All going well, they should be in a position on Saturday to field evergreen, massively streetwise Schalk Brits (though currently flu-hit) at hooker against the ‘Canes, have Springbok hard-man Duane Vermeulen calling the shots at No 8, Handre Pollard customarily influential in the game-plan from the pivot berth and perhaps even another established international, Jesse Kriel, back policing the outside centre channel against the famously free-running home outfit after his lengthy absence.
Nor is there any lack of potency at present from the Bulls’ back three of Warrick Gelant, the now routinely livewire Rosko Specman and one of the good news stories of 2019: a rejuvenated try-poacher Cornal Hendricks after all his health-related dramas.
His skilful, determination-oozing solo try at the corner flag against the Lions somehow seemed to serve as confirmation that he is not far off revisiting his Bok heyday (five tries in 12 Tests, 2014-15) as a hungry finisher.
Hugely hampered by the travel through time zones so soon after their most recent experiences in that regard, the Bulls remain pretty obvious underdogs for the quarter-final, against quality foes.
But several of their soon-departing personnel seem eye-openingly motivated to go out with a bang for the once so proud brand.
We shouldn’t entirely scoff at their chances this weekend …
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