The Vodacom Bulls must bounce back against the Sharks to avoid falling behind in the South African conference title race, writes JON CARDINELLI.
We all know the clichés. The Super Rugby competition isn't won in round two. It's a marathon not a sprint. It's about how you finish the tournament rather than how you start it. Indeed, the great Crusaders teams of the 2000s were known for starting slowly and finishing strongly.
All that being said, there is reason for one of South Africa's top teams to be concerned after two straight losses. The Bulls would have expected to beat a young Stormers side in round one. If not for Grant Hattingh's poor try-scoring technique, they could have beaten the Hurricanes at Loftus Versfeld last Friday. Unfortunately, there are no columns for could've, should've, and would've on the Super Rugby log. The Bulls have lost two from two, and are sitting at fourth in the South African conference.
Teams with home semi-final aspirations cannot afford to lose more than four games over the course of the league stage. The Bulls will be hard-pressed to score 12 wins in their next 14 matches, especially since they've already dropped two games at home.
They certainly cannot afford to lose another game at Loftus, which means the coming clash against the Sharks will be huge. The Sharks also lost in round one, but bounced back this past Saturday with a bonus-point win against the Lions in the wet. The quality of that performance will give them confidence ahead of a showdown with the other major contender for the South African conference title.
Of course, should the Bulls lose a third consecutive game at home this weekend, they will be in a very difficult position. They desperately need a win this coming Saturday, and that forward pack has to live up to its pre-season billing.
The return of Bismarck du Plessis made all the difference for the Sharks in the recent game against the Lions. Du Plessis lent the Sharks some much-needed power at the scrums and collisions. The Sharks pack as a collective always seems to be stronger when the Springbok hooker is in tow. Du Plessis lifts the standard, and the other Sharks players strive to meet that requirement.
The Bulls scrum creaked in the pre-season, and was embarrassed in the opening match against the Stormers. Some might say the Bulls pack needed some time to settle after the arrival of Trevor Nyakane, Adriaan Strauss and Lappies Labuschagne from the Cheetahs, but the Stormers scrum had a new tighthead in Vincent Koch and were lacking in experience overall.
The Bulls should have done better at the scrum, and at the lineout. The Stormers managed to disrupt the Bulls at this set piece. It's something the Sharks will have noted, and I'm sure No 5 Pieter Steph du Toit, the man who has been earmarked to play understudy to Victor Matfield at the World Cup later this year, will want to make a big impression.
In the pre-season, the two Sharks-Bulls derbies were identified as the big ones. I wrote that the winner of these derbies would in all likelihood top the South African conference. But after what's transpired in rounds one and two, the Bulls need to win just to stay in contention for South African honours, let alone lead the pack.
The Stormers are in top spot at this stage, but that may change as the competition progresses. They don't have the depth of the Bulls or Sharks, and if they lose any big players like their inspirational captain Duane Vermeulen or Damian de Allende, they may struggle.
The Cape side has started well, and it's been evident that some improvements to their game have been made. They will improve on last year's 11th-placed finish and push for a play-off spot this season, but it would a surprise to see them pipping the Bulls or Sharks for the conference title.
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