Rugby | Bulls’ inviting chance to close gap

Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

Cape Town – Three of the four Super Rugby
conferences are already very tight at the top … but the Bulls, by contrast,
need to be wary of not letting arch-rivals the Stormers get too much further
ahead in Africa Conference 1.

Theirs is the only group currently featuring
one runaway leader, with the Newlands-based side a whole eight points clear of
the Bulls, even if the Pretoria outfit have a game in hand.

The situation is markedly different in
Africa Conference 2, where leaders the Sharks are separated by only two points
from the second-placed Lions after four matches each, and the same applies to
the Australia Conference (Brumbies and Rebels on 13 points each), and New
Zealand Conference (Chiefs holding off Highlanders at helm by one point).

Given that the Bulls are in the midst of a
rebuilding phase with a strong emphasis on the development of younger players,
the Stormers were already considered in pre-season by most critics as
favourites to end up topping arguably the weakest pool of the quartet, also
featuring the Cheetahs and Sunwolves.

If anything, the first few rounds have only
underlined that likelihood, and Robbie Fleck’s charges widened the gap in round
four with their fine triumph over the previously unbeaten Brumbies, whilst the
Bulls had to rely on a late, close-range penalty miss by Joe Pietersen to
escape with a home draw against the Sharks.

But there is no special reason yet for
Bulls fans to get distraught about the possibility of missing out on a
guaranteed home quarter-final, which is the reward for all conference-toppers.

Over the next four weekends, before they
experience their next bye, the Loftus team have a healthy opportunity to claw
back some ground on the Stormers and possibly even haul them in if their rivals
slip up a couple of times.

Not only does the period see the Stormers
have their own first bye, but the Bulls’ calendar looks a pretty inviting one,
featuring four games that all have a potentially winnable look about them.

First up is Saturday’s date with the
already-ailing Sunwolves in Singapore (12:55 SA time), and if we weren’t
entirely sure whether the rookie Japanese franchise were vulnerable, we
probably know it now: their 35-9 defeat to the Melbourne Rebels even in the
preferred home-venue terrain of Tokyo suggests a campaign filled with the kind
of angst expected of weakest SA franchise the Kings.

Already it is tempting to suggest that if
the three-time champion Bulls – excellent for good parts of the Sharks derby –
cannot overcome Saturday’s hurdle, they barely deserve to be challenging for
conference mastery anyway.

I will be backing them for a win, as will
many other pundits … and then there are three further matches before their
April 22/23 bye that should see results going their way each time if they play
to expected standards.

Those are against the Cheetahs in Pretoria
(April 2), Kings in Port Elizabeth (April 9) and Reds back in Pretoria again on
April 16: wouldn’t it be fair to say losses in any of these would represent

Meanwhile the three games the Stormers play
during the four-week period in question feature at least two indisputable
toughies: while the Sunwolves at Newlands should be an absolute banker on April
8, this Saturday’s Buenos Aires date with the Jaguares has a mightily perilous
look about it, given how desperate the Argentineans must be for a first

They have been beaten in all three fixtures
so far, but never by more than four points and only succumbed by a late try to
the Chiefs in their latest clash (30-26).

The other very tricky one for the Stormers,
while the Bulls negotiate a relatively “easy” phase, is the trip to
Johannesburg on April 16 to play the sprightly Lions, albeit that the loss of
playmaking flyhalf Elton Jantjies for several weeks is a significant blow to
Johan Ackermann’s troops.

So it is not impossible that come the
middle of April, the Bulls will be right up alongside or even ahead of their
old enemies from the south in the conference.

On the flip side, if the Stormers keep
looking like overall title possibles and the Bulls slip on some banana peels in
the handful of looming matches they must be fancied to win, this group may be
well-nigh settled long before the actual roster draws to a climax …

our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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