The desperately unlucky Vodacom Bulls may be out of the Super 14 race but they could still have a massive say in South Africa’s hopes of getting two teams into the semifinals.
The Bulls were much closer to the champion team we saw play last season when they went down to the Blues in Auckland on Saturday. Indeed, they were the better team for most of the way, with the Blues failing to impress for the fourth week in succession and now looking some way short of being the awesome combination they were hyped to be in the early stages.
Gavin Rich writes for Superrugby that the fact that they won was down to just one thing — while referee James Leaky could not necessarily be faulted for his performance, every single 50/50 call did go against the Bulls, and this had a huge impact on the result of the match.
It started with the Troy Flavell try awarded to the Blues in the first half. It was a marginal call, the evidence on television was far from conclusive, and the New Zealand television commentators reckoned the Bulls were unlucky. Enough said. The second Blues try was also contentious, with a Bulls defender clearly being held back when Keven Mealamu went over in the corner.
Then there was the minimal time Leaky allowed for advantage when Derick Hougaard was in a good position to kick a penalty when the Bulls were leading 21-20 with under ten minutes to go. Had he been successful, the Bulls would have led by four points, and they would have been out of range of the drop-goal with which Nick Evans won the match for the home team.
There were several other incidents too, and the Bulls could feel hard done by. At the same time, however, their own decision-making left something to be desired in those final minutes when Hougaard was in a perfect position to aim for a drop-goal. When the Bulls finally did set their flyhalf up, he was much closer to halfway than the tryline, and he dropped the ball from a quick throw-in.
The Bulls did though show pleasing inventiveness throughout the match, and had Zane Kirchner, who had an impressive game, held onto the awkward bounce that eluded him on the tryline with three minutes to go, the Bulls would have won with a superbly created try.
That man Bryan Habana figured strongly in the move, and it was pleasing to see the 2007 IRB Player of the Year back in such tremendous form. It was also encouraging to see Pierre Spies play an entire 80 minutes after such a long layoff from the game, and he was a factor in the match.
There was enough there to suggest the Bulls may be turning the corner, which would be great news for the Sharks and the Stormers — the Sharks because it could have an impact on their chances of securing a home semifinal, and the Stormers because it could help them make the top four.
A Blues defeat would have considerably eased the Sharks’ task, but the Bulls can still knock over the Hurricanes at Loftus later in the competition. In their current form, the Bulls could also further dent the hopes of Western Force in Perth at the weekend. Force are currently fifth on the log, one point ahead of the Stormers.
The Cape team provided the outstanding South African result of the weekend, beating the Force 32-16 with a performance that was near perfect in execution. It was the third match of four on tour that the Stormers won with a bonus point, and with their bonus point garnered in the narrow loss to the Blues, it means they picked up 16 points out of a possible 20 on tour.
That is an almost unbelievable haul if you consider where the Stormers were before they left for overseas. They start the home leg of their campaign against the Cheetahs in two weeks’ time in mid-table, whereas they were languishing in last place on the log when they departed.
The Crusaders maintained their position at the top of the log by holding out against a strong second-half comeback from the Hurricanes in Wellington. The Hurricanes showed enough in the game to suggest the Sharks could have their work cut out this weekend if they don’t considerably improve on their Absa Stadium performance against the Reds.
The chances of seeing the Crusaders toppled may have been improved quite markedly by the cruel injury blow that may rule Daniel Carter out of rugby for six weeks.Tweet