The Bulls' injury toll has mounted at a critical stage of their Super Rugby campaign, with the Cheetahs in with a chance of edging them to top spot in the South African conference, writes RYAN VREDE.
There's never a good time for injuries but there are better ones than others and the Bulls will be cursing their luck in this regard. Arno Botha (pictured) tore knee ligaments while on Springbok duty and is out for the remainder of the year, as is Pierre Spies, who tore a bicep muscle. Jano Vermaak (hamstring) and Francois Hougaard (knee) are yet to establish how long they'll be out of action.
Vermaak was the form South African scrumhalf leading into the June Test window, which earned him his Springbok debut against Italy in Durban, and Botha and Spies were central to the Bulls' success. And while Hougaard lost his starting spot to Vermaak, he remains a fine player, whose game-breaking ability can be the difference in tight contests, the likes of which the Bulls will encounter in the next three weeks.
They should handle the Kings relatively easily at Loftus on Saturday, but matches against the Sharks (home) and Stormers (away) in the last fortnight of the tournament look even more arduous than they'd otherwise be, should, as expected, Vermaak and Hougaard fail to recover from their ailments.
The Bulls were purring in the lead-up to the June break, and coach Frans Ludeke would have privately pleaded with the rugby gods to shield his stars from injury. Perhaps those deities are Cheetahs fans because it appears the Bloemfontein-based franchise could be the primary beneficiary of the Bulls' misfortune.
Their Springbok squad members, captain Adriaan Strauss, Willie le Roux, Coenie Oosthuizen, Piet van Zyl, Lourens Adriaanse, Trevor Nyakane and Lappies Labuschagne, have all emerged from the international sojourn unscathed and with the inspiration that comes from their first involvement at the highest level.
Furthermore, they have a guaranteed four log points for the final round of the league phase, while being favourites to beat the Blues in Bloemfontein in two weeks' time. They are also more than capable of taking the points from Cape Town this weekend and will be aided by the Stormers not realistically having anything to play for. To suggest that the Cape side will roll over is ludicrous, but they won't have the level of motivation they would have were they in contention for a play-off place.
The Cheetahs will benefit from continuity in selection when it matters most while the Bulls are likely to have to turn to fringe or out-of-favour players to fill the injury voids. Vermaak will be most sorely missed, given that his kicking game has been critical to the Bulls' ability to exert pressure in the opposition's half, while the go-forward Spies and Botha have generated at the gainline has seen the collective thrive.
As a starting point, the Bulls must hope to bank a bonus-point victory against the Kings on Saturday, which would then give them some breathing room. Failure to do so could cost them dearly. The Cheetahs' remarkable rise this season has every chance of ending at the summit of the South African conference, with an all-important home play-off. The Bulls will be hoping for medical science to expedite the recovery of some of their stars. If it doesn't, the Cheetahs will be in the wholly unfamiliar territory of being the nation's great hope of Super Rugby glory.
Photo: Barry Aldworth/BackpagePix
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