Rugby Union

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Bulls play the percentages but don't expect much flair

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Placed alongside some flashier examples of the modern age, Bulls five-eighth Morne Steyn cuts an unprepossessing figure. But take a second look. There might be a touch of the diligent suburban accountant about him, but not many can claim to have changed the very way the game is played. His impact has been quite profound.

In 2009, the Springboks, reading the rules of the day more adroitly than their rivals, perfected a game plan of relentlessly raining down kicks on the opposition back three. Laser-guided inquiries from Steyn and Fourie du Preez frequently landed on their targets at the same time as half of the Springboks pack, often accompanied by a chasing winger for good measure. And it created such havoc that it prompted the All Blacks, among others, to rip up the job description of Test winger and start over. These days the model winger in the nation that unleashed Jonah Lomu and Joe Rokocoko is a Cory Jane. In Queensland, Dom Shipperley has pace and aerial skills in equal measure.

The game has changed since 2009. It is supposed the boot plays a slightly less-defining role. And they say the Bulls play a wider game this year. Perhaps. But do not expect a repeat of last week's looseness against the Rebels tonight.

The Bulls still form the fewest rucks a game in the competition and the ball is in play for less time (31 minutes and 35 seconds) than any other side during their games. Steyn chooses the running option one time in every 20. Yet they sit near the top of the ladder in pursuit of a home final that would position them nicely for another shot at the title.

Whether this is a positive is an argument for the aesthetes. Crowds in South Africa don't appear to have suffered. You might argue that the Steyn style is getting in the way of "playing rugby", but be careful not to be tripped up by the principle of consistency. We laud the "all shapes and sizes" argument when it comes to physiques and so it must be with tactics.

Besides, we can get too snooty about these things. Kicking is still a skill, as is receiving. The Bulls' left-winger, Bjorn Basson, might just be the finest exponent of catching the attacking up-and-under in the world. He has tremendous judgment and spring, and no shortage of courage.


Others might find beauty in the aggression of bruising new second-rower Juandre Kruger. Bakkies Botha and Victor Matfield have been farewelled by the men from Pretoria and have quickly moved on. In truth, the old warriors had one eye on the World Cup during last year's Super competition.

But the manner in which the game is being officiated still provides plenty of scope for the Bulls' approach to be successful. Consider the implications of the following statistic. In last week's game between the Crusaders and Reds, as Ewen McKenzie referred to in his column yesterday, 56.3 per cent of ruck and maul penalties were awarded against the team with the ball.

It was a bloated figure but the competition average - 36.5 per cent - tells a story. In our contestable code there is a risk in possession and an opportunity without it, especially against a goalkicker like Steyn and breakaways such as CJ Stander and Deon Stegmann with power over the ball.

In trying to establish if the game has become more suited to the conservatives this year, things become a little trickier.

Certainly kicking has been prominent in games between the heavyweights. And there have been slightly more penalties this year, and more penalties awarded against the team in possession. But our numbers man at cautions that the increases are not statistically significant. It is always advisable to read the warnings on the label when handling dangerous material. If there are trends, they are emerging rather than confirmed.

For the Waratahs at Allianz Stadium tonight the task is simply expressed: the Bulls present particular challenges but unpredictability will not be among them.

There was a telling moment last week in the Brumbies game when former comrade Ben Mowen won an important turnover at a second-half breakdown. Mowen is having a strong season but the tall, angular blindside with long levers is no natural jackal.

Accordingly, the Waratahs' clean-outs against the Bulls will need to have much more conviction. Encouraging selections have been made by the Waratahs' coaches but they will not mean a thing unless accompanied by some hard shoulders and hunger.

It is an evening for the unspectacular but effective. They only need look at the opposition No.10 for any evidence of that.

Twitter: @whiskeycully