The Sharks and the Bulls will stage a replay of last year’s final in the third round of the Super 14 this weekend, with both teams attempting to prevent recent glory days from ebbing away.
The Sharks won their first two matches by narrow margins, 17-10 over the Western Force and 12-10 — relying on penalties — over the Stormers.
The Bulls opened their campaign with a win that extended last year’s late-season winning streak to seven games but returned home to Pretoria last week to be battered 54-19 by the Canterbury Crusaders.
The Crusaders’ win and the Auckland Blues’ 50-point drubbing of the Lions in round two have promoted the belief that South Africa’s domination of the Super 14, and of world rugby, might be short-lived.
None of the South African franchises has appeared to function with certainty under rugby’s new rules — their five teams scored five tries among them in the second round — while bonus-point wins have already allowed the Crusaders and Blues to steal a break at the top of the standings.
The Bulls have acted to stop their fast-fading prestige by recalling Springbok lock Bakkies Botha for Saturday’s match at Loftus Versfeld.
”Bakkies looks fresh. The match will determine how long he is going to be on the field,” Bulls coach Frans Ludeke said.
”He is obviously not ready for the full 80 minutes but it is wonderful to have him in the team because, apart from all his other attributes, he is one of those players that can turn a game around and it’s great to have another very experienced guy on the field.”
Ludeke has benched former Springbok flyhalf Derick Hougaard and promoted Morne Steyn in the hope of igniting the Bulls’ dormant running game.
”Morne gets game time because of our squad system and I am fully confident in his abilities,” Ludeke said. ”It is not widespread that one flyhalf plays all the games in the Super 14 and this is a good opportunity to give him a chance.”
Captain Fourie du Preez remains confident the Bulls can recover from last week’s drubbing, which has damaged their previously formidable home advantage.
”We have been in this position before,” he said. ”There is a lot of character in the Bulls team and I am confident that we can get back on track.”
Sharks coach Dick Muir is also expecting an improvement from the Bulls in a match Saturday that marks an early crossroads in the season.
After two rounds the Blues and Crusaders have two wins and 10 competition points and the Sharks have two wins and eight points. There are eight teams, including the Bulls, at 1-1 and three that have yet to win. In a mark of the closeness of the competition, the three winless sides have each taken two bonus points from opening games.
The Sharks will be challenged on Saturday to keep up their winning record, ideally to recover their running game and to win more emphatically than they have in rounds one or two. The Bulls simply have to win, to pull away from the scrum of teams in the middle of the table and join the tournament pacesetters.
”They will obviously be stung by their performance and traditionally the Bulls respond well to adversity,” Muir said.
The Sharks coach expects his team to improve on recent performances.
”The encouraging thing is that it is much easier to improve from a winning position than a losing one,” he said. ”And this week we are looking forward to playing in Pretoria. As a team, Loftus is one of our favourite grounds and with the conditions being very different there, we hope to play the expansive game that we enjoy.”
The Blues and Crusaders continue their campaigns in South Africa in round three, the Crusaders against the Stormers on Friday and the Blues against the Cheetahs on Saturday.
In matches between teams with 1-1 records, the Wellington Hurricanes play the Waikato Chiefs in a New Zealand derby, the Lions play the Force and the Queensland Reds go looking for their first Super 14 win in Canberra against an injury-plagued ACT Brumbies squad.
The winless Highlanders take on the New South Wales Waratahs on Saturday. — Sapa-AP