The Vodacom Bulls will have the opportunity to make history when they face the Hurricanes in Wellington on Saturday, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Improbable, but not impossible. South African rugby fans should keep these words in mind when the Bulls go questing for the rarest of prizes – a playoff win in New Zealand.
The Springboks beat the All Blacks in Wellington last season to end a nine-year drought in New Zealand. Few would have predicted such an outcome at the start of 2019, but the Bulls claimed draws with the Blues and Highlanders to become the only South African side to finish the New Zealand leg of their tour unbeaten.
If the past two seasons have taught rugby fans anything, it’s to expect the unexpected. A Bulls win in Wellington is improbable, but not impossible.
The travel factor may well floor the Bulls in the latter stages of the contest on Saturday. Pote Human’s charges have traversed the Indian Ocean twice within the space of 10 days, and fatigue may take its toll in the game against the Hurricanes.
History, of course, is against any South African side journeying to the Land of the Long White Cloud in search of a playoff win.
Consider the combined record. South Africa’s franchises have featured in 13 playoff games staged in New Zealand over the past 24 years, and have lost on each and every occasion.
The closest any side came to winning a knockout game in that part of the world was when the Sharks lost 36-32 in Christchurch back in the 1998 semi-final. Since then, no South African team has managed to finish within 10 points of the opposition.
Should the Bulls be encouraged by their recent performances in New Zealand, though? Perhaps. It’s been a long time since the Bulls enjoyed any sort of success in Australasia, and the class of 2019 has certainly made progress on that front.
On the other hand, the Bulls haven’t done enough to win a game in New Zealand this year. The Bulls and the Sharks have combined for three draws in this country, but only the Lions have managed a victory – against the Chiefs in Hamilton.
Can the Bulls go one better this Saturday and end South Africa’s drought in New Zealand-based playoffs? The optimists might point to their win against the Hurricanes last season. They might cling to the fact that John Plumtree’s side has blown hot and cold in 2019.
They shouldn’t want for motivation. Indeed, it will be interesting to see how the result of the first quarter-final in Christchurch shapes the Bulls’ approach in Wellington a day later.
If the Highlanders beat the Crusaders and the Bulls down the Hurricanes, the victors will meet in a semi-final staged at Loftus Versfeld. The Bulls would face another taxing journey across the Indian Ocean in that scenario, but at least they would avoid the prospect of a visit to Christchurch.
It’s called the graveyard for South African teams for a good reason. The Sharks were the last side to win in this part of the world when they beat the Crusaders 30-25 during the conference stage of 2014. They went on to lose 38-6 at the same venue in the semi-finals, though.
The Sharks were hammered in last year’s quarter-final in Christchurch. The Lions progressed to the decider on the south island, and were handed a hiding by the defending champs.
A trip to Wellington may be less daunting. At the very least, there are players in the current Bulls side who have won in New Zealand before and have reason to believe that impossible is just a word.
SA RESULTS IN SUPER RUGBY PLAYOFFS IN NEW ZEALAND
2018: Crusaders 37 Lions 18 (final)
2018: Crusaders 40 Sharks 10 (quarter-final)
2016: Hurricanes 20 Lions 3 (final)
2016: Hurricanes 41 Sharks 0 (quarter-final)
2014: Crusaders 38 Sharks 6 (semi-final)
2012: Chiefs 37 Sharks 6 (final)
2012: Crusaders 28 Bulls 13 (qualifier)
2011: Crusaders 36 Sharks 8 (qualifier)
2006: Crusaders 35 Bulls 15 (semi-final)
2004: Crusaders 27 Stormers 16 (semi-final)
1998: Crusaders 36 Sharks 32 (semi-final)
1997: Blues 55 Sharks 36 (semi-final)
1996: Blues 45 Sharks 21 (final)
Photo: Marty Melville/AFP Photo