Don't write off the Bulls
IN A year in which the Stormers could make history by winning the Super 15 title without a single bonus-point victory, I'm baffled that we aren't more willing to grant the Bulls an outside chance of also breaking with an old tradition.
The three-time champions have never won a Super rugby play-off game in Australasia, and only the playing 22 and their coaching staff seem to believe history is not going to repeat itself against the Crusaders in Christchurch at the weekend.
The main reason for the lack of faith appears to centre on the Bulls not being the team they used to be. Truth be told, neither are the Crusaders.
A sign that the seven-time champions aren't quite the red and black juggernaut of old is the fact that they finished behind the Chiefs in the New Zealand conference, despite not having to play their home games away like they did after the Christchurch earthquakes.
The Crusaders have been as ropey as any of the teams who made the play-offs, with the exception of the stoic Stormers and the balanced Chiefs.
Richie McCaw's men are the joint third-highest try scorers, with 47, while they have the fourth-best defensive record in the competition, with 34 tries against them.
A simplistic, albeit plausible, way of looking at it would be that they don't score as many tries as they should, and their defence is not as impregnable as it was in their 27-0 shutout of the Bulls last year.
Two players who are the team's heartbeat and its direction respectively, McCaw and Dan Carter, have played in patches this season after their major injuries last year.
Of course, missing a fair chunk of the season could also mean they will hit their straps in the play-offs, but for this match the Crusaders are also missing No8 Kieran Read, who has become as influential as the other two as a driving force of the team.
Granted, the Crusaders will be playing at home, which is paramount.
But the presence of a South African referee (Jaco Peyper) should go some way towards ensuring 50/50 calls remain just that, instead of the usual 60/40 split the Australasian referees give the Crusaders.
Looking at the Bulls, they are clearly not the calculating, mind-over-matter team of old. Rather, they are a side in transition, not only in personnel but also in playing style.
The Bulls have never been a team to cut defences to shreds. But their 50 tries, which are second only to the Hurricanes' staggering 58, suggest a change in approach. Also, winger Bjorn Basson, who broke Bryan Habana's franchise record by scoring 10 tries this season, is the joint top try-scorer in the competition despite the fact that the Bulls still haven't worked out how to play him.
They should look to give his incredible pace every chance of success by giving him the ball 5m inside the touchline.
The attacking intent - which has come courtesy of a combination of player changes and possibly flyhalf Morne Steyn's struggles in front of goal - appears to have sprung a few leaks in defence.
Where the presence of Fourie du Preez and Victor Matfield meant they knew when to attack and when not to, the current team exposes itself to counter-attacks due to a lack of a similar awareness.
The one big downer about the Bulls this season is that they have consistently been inconsistent. That might not necessarily be such a bad thing on Saturday.