Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – Failure to get a single log point out of their visit to Canberra on Friday leaves a fairly stark Super Rugby reality in front of the Bulls: the high likelihood they will have to triumph in at least one of the two fixtures on the New Zealand leg of their tour.
Lose both – they play the Blues and Highlanders in that order – and they could well be playing more for pride than a knockout-phase ticket when they entertain compatriots the Lions at Loftus in the closing round of ordinary season.
The side from Pretoria, despite no lack of heart throughout the first half at very least, were ultimately well beaten 22-10 by the Brumbies at GIO Stadium … the margin would have been bigger had Christian Leali’ifano not been largely off-target from the tee, as the hosts only converted one of their four tries and missed a penalty shot at posts as well.
But they earned a full house of table points, nevertheless, for the 4-1 try superiority they commanded, which also increases the chance of a side from the Australian conference, rather than the SA one, earning rights to a potential home semi-final in the competition.
The Brumbies simultaneously supplanted the Bulls as second-placed team to the Crusaders overall (at least in terms of tournament structural demands), dropping the tourists to fifth and the danger of slipping further, depending on results later in the current round on Saturday.
Left stranded on the 32 log points they’d gone into the key game with, Pote Human’s charges, who move onward from Australia with a 50 percent win record, really could do with a similar return at least in New Zealand, where South African victories are traditionally scarcer.
They will be mindful that last season, when the tournament shape was the same with three conferences of five teams each, the Melbourne Rebels found that 36 points wasn’t enough to get them into the finals series.
Get nothing from the New Zealand leg – though that’s in worst-case scenario — and the Bulls might then be looking at a precarious maximum haul of around 36 or 37 themselves this year, if they end on a high by winning the Highveld derby against the Lions.
So winning in either Auckland (next Friday, 09:35 SA time) or Dunedin a week later has become a near-desperate goal for a team knowing that they will be minus Handre Pollard again, and also with Duane Vermeulen returning home immediately for a mandatory Springbok-related rest.
The big No 8 took a worrying knock from a stray knee to his neck or shoulder in the 61st minute of Friday’s encounter, and when the stretcher and buggy came out, many South African hearts – including that of Bok coach Rassie Erasmus – would have fluttered in horror.
After a couple of minutes relatively motionless on his back, Vermeulen did manage to sit up, which seemed a good sign, but he was nevertheless substituted immediately, starting his “sabbatical” a little earlier than he and the already under-the-cosh team (there was no further addition to the scoreboard) might have hoped.
The Bulls were admirably keen and rugged, collectively, on defence, but its integrity was also shattered a few times by the powerful, clever running lines of brawny Brumbies outside backs like Tevita Kuridrani (he earned a hat-trick of tries) and Henry Speight.
On the relatively rare times they got into decent attacking positions themselves, the SA outfit also did themselves no favours by, for example, allowing lanky Rory Arnold to poach one of their offensive lineout balls, or, on another occasion, Scott Sio outsmarting direct rival Trevor Nyakane to earn a relieving penalty from a scrum when the Brumbies were under great pressure.
Stripped of Vermeulen’s usually rich influence on their pack’s competitiveness for the NZ leg, it is hard to see the Bulls rampaging through those shores, despite the fact that they play sides currently outside the top two in that country’s pecking order.
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