Blue Bulls coach John Mitchell says there will be greater expectations on the Sharks going into Saturday’s semi-final at Kings Park. SIMON BORCHARDT reports.
The Sharks topped the Currie Cup log after winning 10 of their 12 matches, while the Bulls finished fourth with just five victories. Having secured home-ground advantage for their semi-final and a possible final, Robert du Preez’s men are the bookies’ favourites to lift the domestic trophy for the first time since 2013.
In contrast, the rebuilding Bulls have somewhat exceeded expectations by qualifying for the semi-finals. At one stage, after four consecutive losses, including a 51-15 hammering from the Pumas in Nelspruit, a playoff place appeared unlikely.
They also lost both of their matches against the Sharks during the regular season – 28-20 at Loftus and 18-5 at Kings Park.
While the Bulls finished the league stage with convincing wins against the Free State Cheetahs and Pumas, and the Sharks lost to Western Province last weekend, the Pretoria-based side will still go into Saturday’s semi-final as heavy underdogs.
It’s a tag Mitchell is happy to embrace.
‘The Currie Cup is not our destination, we’re clearly building for the future,’ he told SARugbymag.co.za. ‘The Sharks have been the best team in the competition. They’ve been strong in the set pieces, strong in the carry, their backline has looked good and they’ve kicked well. They topped the log and will be playing at home on Saturday. That creates pressure and expectation.
‘If you were a betting man, you’d put money on the Sharks to win. But I’m not a betting man.’
Mitchell says what happened in the league stage of the tournament will mean little on Saturday.
‘It doesn’t matter how you get into the playoffs, just that you get there. Both teams will have to start again.
‘We’re excited about the challenge and looking forward to a 14:30pm kick-off in sunshine and on a fast track that will help us to create quick ball.’
The Bulls have been the best attacking team in this year’s Currie Cup, having scored the most tries (64, the Sharks have scored 50) and points (457). They’ve also made the most ball-carries (1,549, with the Sharks second) and linebreaks (119, the Sharks are sixth with 80), according to alloutrugby.com’s statistics.
‘We’ve focused more on maintaining our attacking concept than plays and structure, which falls within that concept,’ said Mitchell. ‘We’ve worked on improving our ball movement, identifying where to go to on the field, and when to run, kick or pass. The players are also getting better at reading where the opposition defence is gravitating towards, and attacking the space they leave for us.’
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The Bulls have the third worst tackle success rate in this year’s Currie Cup – 83.79% (compared to the Sharks’ 87.26%) – but Mitchell is not too concerned by that stat.
‘When you’ve got risk and reward in your defence system, your tackle accuracy percentage can go up and down a bit. You can’t hang your hat on that stat alone. You may have created pressure, forced a turnover and scored a try.
‘We’ve focused on our linespeed on defence; we’re not interested in a passive, drift defence that gives the opposition time to play and use their skills.
‘It does takes time for players to fully adjust to a new defence system – usually over two tournaments with a pre-season between – and I’m happy with the progress we’ve made.’