In certain respects, it might have been better if the Bulls had simply repeated their Timaru horror show last week and we could all have begun to suspect that there must be unrest of some sort in the champions’ camp.
Rob Houwing writes for Sports24 that events in Brisbane on Saturday, where the once-mighty Bulls were beaten once more — 39-30 by the delightfully free-spirited and inventive Reds – did very little to suggest that disharmony is poisoning their flickering Super Rugby campaign.
For the one thing Victor Matfield’s side did appear to win back in Queensland was their spirit, so glaringly absent for large tracts of their humiliation at the hands of the Crusaders.
They got stuck in with much more of the bodies-on-line relish you could once virtually take for granted, and never allowed their heads to drop despite being on the back foot, both in field position and scoreboard terms, for the bulk of the pulsating contest.
Such was their grim spirit of no-surrender, in fact, that a determined late charge even suggested the possibility of not just one but two bonus points in defeat, as a fourth try and simultaneous prospect of ending within seven points was “on” until a knock-on (admittedly fairly deep in their own half) and the siren put paid to that hope.
There had been occasions, too, where the Reds benefited materially from some dubious refereeing calls against the embattled touring outfit.
Nevertheless, ardent Bulls fans and South African enthusiasts more broadly would be deluding themselves considerably if they felt the troops from Pretoria deserved even parity, let alone a much-needed win, from this fixture.
The harsh truth was that, using the full 80 minutes as the yardstick, James Horwill and company, on the hottest streak for this Australian franchise since the halcyon days of Timmy Horan, pretty much trampled the Bulls with their new-age thrust despite their opponents’ ceaseless courage.
They scored six tries to three and that tally read 6-2 until Bjorn Basson’s second personal visit across the whitewash in the 78th minute, when perhaps some hint of long-haul travel fatigue was finally beginning to envelope the Reds, whose task was largely done and dusted anyway.
And although it would be cruel to summarily pooh-pooh the Bulls wing’s first try just before half-time, when he raced up to pinch a kick-off from the halfway mark immediately after a Reds touchdown of their own and waltzed clean through the disbelieving defence, it was all about marvellous solo opportunism and came as a bolt from the blue and welcome bonus for the seemingly heavy-breathing (at that point) South Africans.
It was enough, all the same, to keep the halftime damage to a four-point advantage in favour of the Reds and then the Bulls also made liberal, freshening use of their bench early in the second period (as many as four changes took place at the same time in the 50th minute) to ensure that they never quite gave up the ghost in this match despite the tide largely forcing them backwards.
Whilst the home outfit turned on the charm quite dazzlingly at times – Quade Cooper is eclipsing even New Zealand’s finest Dan Carter at present for flyhalf sorcery and pure, outrageous cheek – protracted forays toward the Reds’ own line were few and far between from the Bulls.
Their best moment was in the 69th minute when Danie Rossouw (all too belatedly on the park for the ineffectual Bakkies Botha) rounded off a little stint of classic, concerted Bulls mauling and recycling.
If big second-rower Botha was one of many senior Springboks South Africa-wide to continue to look alarmingly innocuous this season for the 50 minutes he had, at least a few others — like Wynand Olivier, Morne Steyn, Pierre Spies and Matfield himself – were better than they were in Timaru … although that is obviously an observation coming off a low base.
At the end of the day, though, the Bulls got reasonably close on the board primarily because of Steyn’s near-faultless place-kicking, contrasted with Cooper’s erratic showing in this department at the other end which would otherwise have powered the Reds into the forties.
Brave and improved, but still palpably not good enough: that has got to be a worry for Frans Ludeke and the rest of the Bulls coaching hierarchy.
No wonder Matfield conceded afterwards, in terms of the possibility of retaining their title from a current overall log position of eighth and 14 points shy of the Crusaders and Reds: “It will be very hard from here.”
As he added, only beating the Western Force on the Perth stopover on the way home next weekend can keep some oxygen in their campaign.