Bulls launch late-season charge for fourth title

There’s no room for emotion in this game for Bakkies Botha, even if it is a super rugby milestone.

It’s doubtful if the giant Bulls and Springboks lock — always physical, sometimes controversial — has played any of his 99 previous Super rugby games and 72 tests without emotion.

But Botha insisted this week that his 100th Super rugby game — and possibly his last at the Bulls cherished Loftus Versfeld stadium — won’t be sidetracked by joyous celebrations on Saturday.

Bulls fans could also say goodbye to three of their — and the Springboks’ — greatest players in the match against the Sharks on Saturday when Botha, 104-Test veteran Victor Matfield and scrumhalf Fourie du Preez likely play their final home game at Pretoria.

The resurgent Bulls — on a six-match winning run in Super 15 — need victory over the visiting Sharks in the last round of the regular season to confirm their place in the play-offs and keep their title defence alive. The Bulls and Sharks are locked in second place in the South African conference, five points adrift of the Stormers.

Botha and Du Preez are set to leave for overseas clubs next season and 34-year-old Matfield is nearing retirement.

So, 100 could be the last at Loftus for Botha, with the Bulls currently outside the top three places in the overall Super 15 standings and therefore unlikely to have another home game this season.

“I’m not looking into it,” Botha said. “It’s a special day for me, to share it with guys like Victor and Fourie and a lot of players that have come through the years but my main focus and all my energy is going into the role I must play in the team. The 100 is just a bonus.

“We’ve got a job to do and it is to win the game against the Sharks.”

Botha will take his 2.02m, 122kg frame to big-spending French club Toulon next season.

His second row partner for province and country for the last decade, Matfield will leave a bigger hole for the Bulls if, as expected, he retires following the World Cup in New Zealand at the end of this year.

Du Preez — who will play in Japan next year — has recovered from a right knee ligament injury that threatened to cut short his last Super 15 season. He starts on the bench against the Sharks in what is probably his last Loftus appearance.

A significant game and momentous season, then, for the three World Cup winners and three-time Super rugby champions?

‘We’ve got a competition to win’
A chance to say goodbye at the stadium where they have played their entire professional careers so far, and will have all played 100 games for the Bulls come Saturday?

“No, we don’t think about it like that. We’ve got a competition to win,” Matfield said. “We said at the beginning of the season we’ll sort out the things that happen after the season, after the season. We just want to do well this season, so try and get that emotion away and focus on the game.

“I don’t think there will be any emotion on that side.”

With the team on the charge again, the Bulls still have a chance at a third straight title — even after a disastrous start when they dropped five of their first nine games.

That stumbling start included two losses at fortress Loftus in their first two home games and a 27-0 drubbing by Canterbury Crusaders.

All were forgotten, said Matfield, by the time the players came together on the Monday after the game. The captain explained it’s the Bulls tradition.

“It doesn’t matter whether we win or lose … On the Monday we do a review and then we’re finished. We start from scratch again.”

Squashed in between Botha and Matfield at a news conference Wednesday -and dwarfed by the Springboks lock pairing — Bulls coach Frans Ludeke agreed. It’s how the team has dealt with facing must-win scenarios for the past six games, he said, as the Bulls dragged themselves back into contention.

“We are in the same position, obviously. The only thing that really matters is the result on the weekend so the focus is back to zero,” Ludeke said. “We know what got us here in terms of our strategy. It’s more a mental thing than anything else.”

Ludeke added there were “no secrets” to the Bulls’ ominous late-season surge.

“We just worked hard, we believed in each other. We backed the system all the way, players backed themselves. That’s the way we came back,” he said.

Also back are the supporters, with a sell-out crowd at Loftus Versfeld for the Sharks game.

Some of the normally die-hard Bulls fans had slipped away after the poor start, with a drop in the attendance at the 50 000-seat stadium.

“Firstly I think it was a pity that the guys weren’t here at the stadium,” Matfield said, gently reprimanding fans for doubting his team. “They didn’t believe in us but we are happy that we could get the belief back in six games.” – Sapa-AP

Gerald Imray
Gerald Imray works from South Africa. Associated Press. [email protected] if you have a story to tell. Follower of Johannesburg's mighty Lions. Gerald Imray has over 2884 followers on Twitter.
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