Super Rugby

Loftus air: It's NZ teams' new big buddy

Sevu Recce and RG Snyman (Gallo Images)
Sevu Recce and RG Snyman (Gallo Images)

Cape Town - Welcome to our lung-busting hell.

Effectively, that's so often been an intimidating, goading tactic to Australasian foes by the Bulls in their Super Rugby past, which featured three title wins between 2007 and 2010.

But the "thin Loftus air" theme is losing its lustre at a rate of knots ... at least as it applies to travelling New Zealand outfits.

More particularly, the modern Crusaders are embracing the challenge to such an extent that they've realised it can, instead, be turned into a wonderful ally.

The defending champions and nine-time tournament winners, now hurtling toward a double-figure tally as daylight develops between them and most other comers on the overall table, have visited the hallowed Pretoria temple twice in three seasons, Friday's near-humiliation of the hosts (45-13) roughly emulating the 62-24 result achieved there in 2017.

By notching seven tries to one, to the horror of most of a vastly-improved crowd at the stadium, the Cantabrians took their two-game try advantage there to a jaw-dropping 17-4, as it had been 10-3 in the equally unpalatable prior encounter.

If the Bulls are making any new-age progress, we have to believe it is coming in baby steps at best, just based on those cold, no-place-to-hide stats.

Friday's game also rather exploded the notion, evidenced pre-match in the quirkiness of the overall log status, that this was a meeting of one versus two in the competition: after it, the Bulls (now back with a wishy-washy 6-5 win record) had slipped a notch to third behind the Rebels, although a farcical 12 points shy of the forcibly, cruelly fourth-placed Hurricanes.

In terms of the SA conference more specifically, the result also meant that the Sharks only needed to scoop one log point from their Saturday tour-closer against the Chiefs in Hamilton (09:35 kick-off) to snatch leadership of the volatile group.

But the Crusaders aren't the only side from the Land of the Long White Cloud to have found Loftus an agreeable place to run up a "cricket score" this season - back in March the Chiefs, albeit currently marooned in 14th spot, also left the Bulls in a galling mess, thrashing them 56-20 and by seven tries to two that time.

Neither of those home results bodes particularly well, of course, for the Bulls' imminent four-match trek across the Indian Ocean, where games three and four will be on New Zealand soil (Blues, Highlanders).

Considering their poor overseas record in recent seasons, there is a serious danger that Pote Human's charges will sink without trace in the next few weeks as playoffs contenders; it is never ideal to undergo your main tour so late in ordinary season.

Contrite captain Handre Pollard admitted after the 'Saders drubbing that there would have to be some "reflection" when they land in Australia for Friday's first fixture against the Rebels.

But he also, significantly, made the point that the unusually high tempo they were forced into by the champions might have the positive effect of serving them well in a fitness context for the tricky Melbourne date.

For truth be told, it almost looked more as though the Crusaders were the beneficiaries of the altitude factor than the home team in the latest fixture: their counter-attacks from turnovers or broken play seemed to happen in a flash, constantly forcing the Bulls to scramble desperately, and the New Zealanders also outfoxed them noticeably at breakdowns, where their sheer strength of numbers in an admirable hurry meant Bulls ball-clutchers were swamped and dispossessed, lacking sufficient aid.

An admirable exception, it has to be said, was veteran Springbok eighth-man Duane Vermeulen, who was combative and committed at close quarters despite the all-round difficulties of the home cause, and engineered several steals of his own.

Just how comfortable the 'Saders were at sparking attacks from a long way out was evidenced through the fact that the Bulls were anything but hard done by in territorial terms - they reportedly had some 57 percent of the real estate.

Keep in mind, just as soberingly, that the visitors entered this clash straight off a long-haul flight, having slugged out a 21-21 home draw with an altogether more conservative, defence-conscious and unashamedly physical Sharks side only a week earlier, whereas the Bulls were playing their second Loftus match on the trot.

"We wanted to push ourselves; to play at a pace," said delighted Crusaders captain Matt Todd, confirming what we had all just witnessed with some awe.

The tourists earned fulsome praise from SuperSport pundit and World Cup-winning Bok leader John Smit: "They kept the pace up on a continual basis ... relentless; it was incredible."

High altitude? Right now it seems anything but a South African rugby advantage.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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