PRETORIA – The easiest cop out for the Bulls to fizzle into Super Rugby obscurity would be citing their standing in the South African conference.
Bottom of their conference after two defeats to the Highlanders and Stormers and with a mountain to climb in getting themselves back in the reckoning, with the Sharks and Jaguares the immediate hurdles in their campaign to still be there when it matters.
But Bulls coach John Mitchell would want it no other way and instead of trying to stem the sudden tide of unfavourable results, the former All Blacks coach sees their derby against the Sharks at Loftus Versfeld tomorrow as the perfect opportunity to get back on the horse and make that final charge towards the play-offs count.
And it is easy to see why the Bulls are still in contention with a bonus point win the set to catapult them to amongst the frontrunners and with a game in hand over their South African conference counterparts, they still hold their fate in their hands.
It is only 11 points that separates them from conference leaders the Lions with a mere four points between the second placed Jaguares, the Sharks, Stormers and themselves.
Add to this the fact that the Bulls' monumental 40-10 win against the Sharks in Durban a few weeks ago will still be fresh in the minds of both sets of players and you see why there's no panic yet.
The Sharks may be seeking redemption and affirmation that they are the good side that blew the Highlanders off the park in Durban last week, but they will come face-to-face with a Bulls side that is just as ambitious and hurting from how things panned out at Newlands and the week before when they hosted the Highlanders.
“They will come with massive momentum, there is no doubt about that. They will look to dominate us on the gain line, that’s the Sharks. I think it is very clear what they will come with. We have our reasons as well as they have their own reasons, we are looking forward to it,” said Mitchell at yesterday’s team announcement press conference at Loftus.
“We’ll respect the mindset and attitude they will come with, no doubt about that. But ultimately at the end of the day we focus on ourselves, our reasons and purpose. We were disappointed and irritated by our performance last week, we weren’t happy with it.
We got back into our work, win, lose or draw our process doesn’t change and we get back into it. So we’ve got a chance this week to get back on the horse and play some good footie.”
While Mitchell would have made the changes to his team with the consideration of their health and workload, the return of Springbok prop Trevor Nyakane at tighthead will certainly bring back stability and strength to the scrums.
Even though the Bulls might lose out on some brute force and physicality with Thembelani Bholi starting from the bench and Roelof Smit elevated to the starting team at No 6, the men in blue will be looking to again get dominance at the breakdown with two fetchers amongst the loose trio with Marco van Staden at eighthman.
The big and hard running Travis Ismaiel has also been given the nod ahead of the in-form Divan Rossouw, who has played almost every minute this season, and that could also be a timely tactical move that will get the Sharks defence guessing and scrambling at the sight of Ismaiel in full flight.
The Bulls will look to remain relevant especially at a time when the results say otherwise but Mitchell has always known that waking up the sleeping giant in blue was never going to come easy.
“This competition is a grind and if you get bored with it and choose to become inconsistent, you will get left behind. You mustn’t get bored and it is about being consistent in what you do. We have a process that we back win, lose or draw.
So we make the necessary tactical adjustments required each week for the opposition and in respect of what they bring. But the lads know what they are getting each week and they can go chase their work with purpose and arrive at the end of the week with confidence and clarity.
The biggest challenge at this time of the year is to show mental weakness when it is really asking you to grind it out and deal with it,” Mitchell said.