Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – Hang in there, Bulls supporters. Please … hang in there.
The main overseas leg of their Super Rugbyseason is already looking a little gory on paper, courtesy of a second successive reverse on Friday, and by a deceptively wide-looking 41-28 to the Chiefs in Hamilton.
Indeed, so much energy (though a lot of it so admirable and thrill-inducing at times) was expended by the tourists from the Highveld that there is a very good chance, regrettably, defending champions the Crusaders will only cash royally in their Christchurch meeting next weekend, when tour fatigue may well take root amongst the still inexperienced Bulls party.
To top off a particularly taxing little run of fixtures, their “reward” for the long trek home to Pretoria is hosting just a few days later of domestic arch-rivals the Stormers at Loftus, before the eventual mercy of a bye weekend.
So there is a fair chance that in table terms -- both SA conference and overall -- the Bulls will continue to slip southward in the period before any likelihood of movement back the other way.
But should that possible scenario be a simultaneous signal for the long-suffering Pretoria faithful to switch off their interest, en masse, for 2018?
Good grief, no.
At least, you’d earnestly hope not.
For make no mistake, a revolution is on the go at the once mighty, three-time title-winning franchise, with new head John Mitchell right at the fulcrum of a purposeful, patient regrowth drive that was always likely to be tough on the shock absorbers in its earliest phase.
At very least, this re-emergence, this restoration of respectability as first objective on the journey, should manifest itself in a more pronounced, tough-nuts-to-crack phenomenon at Loftus, where a slew of winnable matches lies ahead in the final two-thirds of the season.
The Australasian tour, even if does end nought from three, will have been the character-building, bond-forging exercise Mitchell no doubt wished for, and those Bulls devotees prepared to see the bigger picture will also remain justifiably optimistic that more consistent good times are on the not too distant horizon at all.
Yes, this was the second tour clash on the trot where the Bulls ran out of gas, after a protracted period where their collective engine performed more like a Ferrari than the battered old farm bakkie evident for too much of the Nollis Marais tenure and the fading embers of Frans Ludeke’s stint, too.
In Brisbane last week, the Bulls could not add a single additional point after a budding first 25 minutes (they eventually lost 20-14 to the Reds), and in the latest instance their 28th and sadly last point came in the 39th minute, Handre Pollard pressing a fourth converted try.
It still meant that the Bulls commanded a not inconsiderable 28-14 advantage at the break, having contributed quite fabulously to a searing-paced first-half spectacle the equal of any of the hallowed, high-octane New Zealand derbies, for example.
Jesse Kriel, the massively revitalised Springbok outside centre, seemed to be at the heart of virtually every move as the Bulls rocked the Chiefs, the 2012 and 2013 champions, with a series of blistering, delightfully-executed hand-to-hand raids.
Pollard was also at his direct-style, and bullet-passing best (his broad kicking game strong as well) and the back three of Warrick Gelant, Travis Ismaiel and Divan Rossouw a major handful into the bargain.
At the height of their verve, popular commentator Tony Johnson was moved to enthuse: “It is so refreshing seeing South African backs putting each other in space, rather than just bashing their way (ahead).”
But it is also not unimportant to remember that the Bulls are still learning to produce such frenzied intensity and speed, and the wiser of observers would have been suspecting, even at the change-around, that the home team – far more used to such ceaseless enterprise, of course – would produce a spirited second wind after their initial angst.
With beasts like a smouldering Brodie Retallick to the fore, the Chiefs began not only to run around tiring Bulls foes, but also bash some concerted holes through them.
It helped not a bit that the Bulls had to play the second half without one of the premier tight-five athletes, RG Snyman, as he fell victim to a nasty but accidental cheek bang that saw him sink like a stone in a pond.
Indicative of the Bulls’ spirit and confidence at the time, the lanky lock optimistically tried to play on, but he was then yanked for the wise concussion test, and that was him done for the night.
The tide was discernibly turning, and when reserve prop Conraad van Vuuren earned a yellow card that could easily have been red for a cynical late shot on Chiefs playmaker Damian McKenzie well into the final quarter, the Bulls’ fire was properly doused.
They kept having a go, though, and at six points down, a minute after the siren and still trying desperately to launch a game-stealing counter, a turnover and last Chiefs try cruelly robbed them even of a second losing bonus point on tour which would have been useful both morally and mathematically.
Still, there was ample enough reason for a smile through the tears, from Pretoria living rooms.
And when could you say that last season?
The Bulls have no reason to crumple the current, genuinely exciting script …