Pressure builds on Bulls

The Vodacom Bulls need to beat the Blues in Auckland on Friday to keep their South African conference title hopes alive. JON CARDINELLI reports.

The Bulls will be thrilled with the Lions’ stunning victory over the Highlanders at Ellis Park this past Saturday. While this result keeps the Lions in the play-off hunt, it also strengthens the Bulls' claim for a spot in the final six. The Lions beat the Highlanders and limited the New Zealanders to two tries. The upshot is the Highlanders and the Bulls are level on 34 log points after 11 games each.

The Bulls will be less pleased with the result in Cape Town. Had Christian Lealiifano converted David Pocock’s 73rd-minute try, the Brumbies would have taken the lead and hung on for the win. That result would have ensured the Bulls maintained their position at the top of the South African conference even though they had a bye in round 13.

But how they will be cursing Leallifano’s errant aim at a crucial stage of the contest. The conversion attempt struck the upright, and so the Brumbies continued to trail the Stormers by one point. The Cape side won the game, and moved to the top of the local standings by virtue of their superior win record (eight wins to the Bulls’ seven).

That result was massive in the context of the South African conference. A look at the log will confirm that the Bulls still enjoy a game in hand, but the reality is the Stormers have an easier run-in to the play-offs.

The Cape side will enjoy a bye this week, before playing three of their last four league games at Newlands. While the Stormers have failed to make any big statements with their performances in 2015, you would expect them to beat the likes of the Rebels, Lions and Cheetahs at Newlands.

The good news for the Bulls is their destiny is still in their own hands. If they win their remaining five games, they are likely to top the South African conference and book a home semi-final.

What will threaten those ambitions is the fact that they will play their next four games in Australasia. Unlike the Stormers and Sharks, the Bulls have a relatively poor record overseas.

This is why their next game against the Blues in Auckland is so important. The Blues have won just two matches this season, and have been further weakened after the loss of players such as Jerome Kaino and Charles Piutau. In theory, this should be the Bulls’ easiest match of the four-game tour. They need to win here to keep their conference title ambitions alive, and to keep the heat on the Stormers.

The Lions surprised the Highlanders last Saturday. Both the Bulls and the Stormers will be hoping for a repeat performance when the Johannesburg-based franchise welcome the Brumbies this weekend. They will also be hoping the Sharks bounce back to beat the Waratahs in Sydney. Those results will ensure a South African team continues to occupy a top-two place on the overall log.

The Sharks have won four from 12, and are not in contention for the play-offs. And yet, they have plenty to play for in their remaining four matches. I’m not sure they will care too much about their results serving the better-placed SA teams. Their chief ambition now is to avoid the ultimate embarrassment: the conference wooden spoon.

The Sharks (21 log points) sit at fourth in the South African conference, while the Cheetahs are currently at fifth (20). However, one has to remember that the Sharks have played one more game than the Cheetahs at this stage, and that the Sharks have a tougher schedule in these final weeks. If they don’t win their remaining matches, they will have to hope the Cheetahs fare just as badly.

The Sharks will be underdogs when they travel to Sydney this weekend. Their next match against the Reds will be fiercely contested, considering it will be a battle between two basement-dwelling sides scrapping for a consolation win. When the Sharks return to South Africa, they will host the much-improved Rebels, and then finally the Stormers.

The Cheetahs will play the Highlanders in Bloemfontein this Saturday, and traditionally this has always been an open-running fixture. The Cheetahs could also beat the Lions in Bloem next week, and a win against the Stormers at Newlands in round 16 is not out of the question considering they recently beat the Cape side at the Free State Stadium. They will finish their league campaign, and presumably their season, with matches against the Waratahs at home and the Bulls away.

It will be interesting to see how both of these teams fare over the next five weeks, not only in terms of results, but in terms of log points. If they can't win their remaining matches, they must at the very least accumulate sufficient bonus points. The difference between fourth and fifth place in the conference may be decided by one or two log points.

The Sharks should be the more motivated of the two sides. They are a bigger franchise than the Cheetahs, with far better resources. Their current position is unacceptable, but it would be especially damaging to the union and brand if they fell from first to last in the space of a year.

Photo: Barry Aldworth/Backpagepix

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