Bulls now South Africa’s best hope?

Pierre Spies’ men are now South Africa’s leading side on the Super 15 log. Do they have the ability to go further?

We are 11 weeks into the Super rugby season and it seems the Australian sides, with the motivation of the British & Irish Lions series to come, have lifted themselves to the point where the Reds and Brumbies both have more log points than South Africa’s top side, the Bulls.

With the Sharks’ endless injury list and the Stormers’ inconsistency ruining their chances of play-off progression from the republic, it is now down to the two sides from the Highveld: the Bulls and Cheetahs.

The Cheetahs have had a magnificent season thus far, especially considering their poor log placing in previous seasons.

They are the best attacking side in South Africa and have added some steel to their previously leaky defence (one wonders how John McFarland and the other Springbok coaches wondering around the country to the different Super Rugby franchises has had an affect on that). 

Their Highveld brethren the Bulls top the South African log on 37 points, two ahead of the Cheetahs. Thought to have mid-log potential at the beginning of the season given their lack of squad-wide experience, the men from Pretoria have shown an ability to scores tries beyond their traditional set-piece and kicking strength.

The return to form of Morne Steyn has proven an important part of their season, while discovering new stars such as Jan Serfontein has helped the re-freshening process. The question now is whether they have the depth and ability to go beyond the play-offs into the business end of the competition.

With the Brumbies (41), Chiefs (40), and Reds (39) all above them in the standings, the Bulls will need to string several victories together to ensure they don’t have to step on a plane for their play-off match. The Cheetahs would be aiming to do the same and have continued to progress even without star flyhalf Johan Goosen.

Their bye, same as the Bulls, has come at the right time. With mostly local derbies to come till the end of the competition, it will be interesting how the South African conference shapes up.

Australia should see both the Brumbies and Reds, who are playing fine rugby, into the play-offs, while New Zealand is a clutter with the Crusaders, who appeared to be losing their way, back into contention (how good is Dan Carter?). The Blues play champagne counter attacking rugby, while the Chiefs keep winning even though they let in too many points for a defending champion. 

The picture after June will be clearer.

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Sharks the SA team to beat in the early stages

John Plumtree arguably has the best squad in South Africa to pursue this year’s Super Rugby title

The Sharks have managed to get their Super Rugby season off to a good start with victories over the Cheetahs and Stormers respectively. Their 12-6 victory over last year’s South Africa conference winners was impressive given the intense collisions taking place around the rucks. It was not great rugby, but it was not poor either, and now the Durbanites have two from two, setting them up for the first half the season.

Their main opposition in the South Africa conference will come from the Stormers, and the Bulls. Morne Steyn, who will be heading to France after the Currie Cup, appears to be the form flyhalf in South Africa at the moment though his team did not cover themselves in glory after beating the Force at Loftus in a poor display 36-26. The scoreline flatters the hosts.

While upfront the Bulls are in fine shape, its their lack of creativity in midfield, typified by a shorn Wynand Olivier, that appears their biggest problem. While their intensity will noticeably improve this coming week against the Blues, Bjorn Basson’s injury is a hammer blow, as the man has the ability to score tries out of nothing.

The Stormers appear to be in better shape this year than last, with Lions players bolstering their ranks. Elton Jantjies, the mercurial flyhalf who when firing is arguably the best in the country, is still settling in in Cape Town with his preparations for the season dealt a large set-back following the sad passing of his father.

Jaco Taute, another Springbok recruit from Johannesburg, is still injured while in midfield Juan de Jongh has not been able to work his way back to full fitness yet. Damian de Allende is a talent, but what should concern coach Allister Coetzee is the effectiveness of his captain Jean de Villiers at 13. Having lost the pace to truly exploit a hole, his distribution is slightly nullified given the ball passes through three sets of hands before getting to him.

The Sharks have the best dept especially among the loose, and given how long the Super Rugby season is, depth is always an important factor for any team seriously planning an assault on the title. In JP Pietersen and Lwazi Mvovo they have two of South Africa’s four best wings while the return of Frans Steyn, surprisingly captaining the side, from midfield rectifies one of their weaker positions last year.

It’s early days yet but the Sharks appear the best equipped side to mount a serious Super Rugby challenge to the likes of the Brumbies, Reds, Waratahs, Chiefs, Crusaders and already this year’s dark horses, the Blues.