Cape Town – What a terrible time for the once-imperious Bulls to have to entertain the defending champions of Super Rugby.
Not too many years ago, any New Zealand team would have dreaded the prospect of flying long-haul, smack into a massively demanding Saturday encounter (15:05 kick-off) at Loftus.
But the old “thin Highveld air” advantage theory has long ceased to be a notable factor against NZ opponents anyway, and it will hardly be giving the inbound Hurricanes the heebie-jeebies as they gear up to play a Bulls outfit running nought from three and with the future of their head coach Nollis Marais under ever-sharpening scrutiny.
In short, the current Bulls playing personnel look a thoroughly spooked, increasingly demotivated and disorganised bunch … so the ‘Canes, under the circumstances, could hardly be less ideal next opponents.
The Wellington-based team are the competition’s clear-cut leading try-scorers with 72, amounting to a lethal average of 6.54 per match.
Even the tournament-leading, unbeaten Crusaders are seven back on 65, and having played one extra game at this point.
The Hurricanes also boast the best “points for” tally competition-wide at this juncture (483), and it is not as though their defence has been especially compromised as a result – they are also the leanest outfit in “points against” terms (201).
Just a glance at last weekend’s points swing between the Hurricanes and Bulls gives an ominous indication of the likelihood that the suffering may endure in Pretoria in a few days’ time – it is effectively 91, if you weigh up the Hurricanes’ 61-7 victory over the Cheetahs (win margin 54) with the Bulls’ 51-14 Johannesburg pounding from the remorseless Lions (loss margin 37).
There were brief spells early in the first half at well-populated Emirates Airline Park last Saturday when it just looked as though the Bulls might go toe to toe with the home side on a prolonged basis in the fast-paced affair.
After almost half an hour, for example, the visitors had been fairly full-blooded contributors to an easy-on-the-eye spectacle, prompting at least one neutral Springbok, the former Western Province tighthead prop Keith Andrews (@KeithKandrews) to accurately tweet: “What a super game … Lions playing so well. Bulls not playing too badly either!”
Yet fresh doubts about the Bulls’ collective zeal and possibly even fitness levels progressively, painfully crept in the more the Lions’ stuck to their up-tempo, slick 15-man approach and effectively blew their Highveld rivals away in the final analysis.
Hardly helped by being limited to little more than a third of possession and real estate, the Bulls were massacred 7-2 in try terms, and barely looked like crossing the chalk in the second half.
With only 25 tries themselves now from 11 matches (a lame average of 2.27 a game), the three-time past champions are inferior to as many as 15 other outfits in the competition – that even includes the overall rock-bottom Sunwolves, who have posted 29.
Sadly for the Bulls, their Super Rugby season is all but dead in the water as far as knockout qualification is concerned: they have fallen a gaping 15 points behind the Stormers – finally back in winning ways - in Africa Conference 1 with just four games left each.
It is also mathematically impossible already for them to catch up to either of the Lions or Sharks from the other SA pool, in the hunt for the third playoffs berth guaranteed to a side from either group.
The Lions had been way clear of them even before the derby humiliation, whilst the Durban-based team officially put the Bulls out of sight by beating the Sunwolves in Singapore with a bonus point in tow to advance to 38 points from 12 matches; the Bulls sport only 15 from 11 outings so 35 is their most unlikely maximum.
Their remaining obligations after the formidable Hurricanes date this weekend are Sharks (away), Kings (home) and Stormers (home).
Meanwhile the ‘Canes stay very much at the races, and will hardly be partial to any sort of second-gear slip-up at Loftus, given the mighty battle in the NZ conference for a controversially limited number of knockout spots.
The Bulls are at sixes and sevens. Wags will be inclined to suggest that might turn to sevens and eights on Saturday …
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