Cape Town – Conference rivals the Stormers have found to their cost recently that playing New Zealand sides at their own up-tempo game can lead to a nasty skid off the track … the Bulls look primed to attempt a greatly different route against the red-hot Crusaders on Saturday.
Examining the starting XV named by coach Nollis Marais on Wednesday, the Loftus outfit appear to believe that slowing down and ideally outmuscling the unbeaten visitors will be the best route to a mildly upset Super Rugby victory (17:15 kick-off).
Certainly the forward personnel chosen, and bearing in mind that the ‘Saders will be without pack kingpins of their own Sam Whitelock and Kieran Read, indicates that the Bulls will aim for mastery of the broad “grunt” department if possible, and to play a strongly structured, territory-based game intended to frustrate the hand-to-hand plans of the seven-time past champions.
It is easier said than done, of course, given that increasingly few NZ sides are prepared to simply roll over in the engine room; any self-respecting Crusaders eight will pitch up for a slug-out, while mindful also that the Bulls aren’t exactly a consistently renowned scrummaging force these days.
But it should also still be quite fresh in the minds of the otherwise long-suffering Bulls faithful that it was only two matches ago – against the Jaguares, at very Loftus – that the home scrum suddenly excelled to a noticeable degree in a much-needed 26-13 win.
It was less convincing again more recently against the Cheetahs, in a tighter 20-14 victory, but bear in mind that the Bulls were minus anchorman Trevor Nyakane on that occasion, as the chunky Springbok front-ranker underwent a mandatory break and Jacobie Adriaanse performed tighthead duties.
That sit-out seemed unfortunately timed, as the enigmatic Nyakane had been a revelation both at his core scrum task and in general play against the Argentineans, just as hearteningly going 77 minutes in the contest to suggest his conditioning is more up-to-scratch this year – perhaps a pleasing sign for the Boks if so.
If he is able to be a “smiling assassin” once more against the Crusaders (he is reunited with Pierre Schoeman and Adriaan Strauss in a fairly heavyweight front row), the Bulls may be onto something as a starting point for bragging rights in the important contest.
They must also be hoping that the recently injury-bedevilled Jacques Potgieter, who eclipses Jannes Kirsten to the blindside flank shirt, is ready to start smashing back foes both at close quarters and beyond in the way he used to with the Waratahs.
At his best, the 115kg, once wild-haired Potgieter is not dissimilar to a compatriot like Willem “Bone Collector” Alberts for physical endeavour and go-forward oomph, and he will be expected to announce himself pretty early in the Highveld conditions against the Crusaders.
The Bulls are also blessed for this one to have their best lock trio all battle-ready, with Jason Jenkins and Lood de Jager starting and the lanky RG Snyman braced for a meaty impact contribution in the second half – for pure tall timber, with All Black Whitelock missing from the visitors’ lineout plans, the Bulls will enjoy supremacy on paper.
The absence of Handre Pollard may be felt at flyhalf for his readiness to attack the gain-line, but just one channel wider the home side will restore some physical stoutness with Burger Odendaal no shrinking violet; he could have a fairly bone-crunching one-on-one with expected Crusaders choice Ryan Crotty at inside centre.
Yes, whether it works out productively for them or not, I am hardly expecting the Bulls to be too fast and loose in this one … they are likelier to seek gains in tight spaces.
It is only if they are forced into notable catch-up mode – something that can hardly be dismissed as a possibility, regrettably – that the Bulls outside backs may regularly get to show off any dance steps.
This is a big date for the hosts, for whom a win, however it may be achieved, is likely to hugely revive their chances of catching up to the conference-leading Stormers.
That would have seemed a long shot a few weeks back, but the Bulls have suddenly been winning at the same time as the Capetonians have been losing; the phenomenon may just continue in this round, as the weakened Stormers will be anything but favourites on Friday against the Hurricanes in Wellington.
Assuming that the Bulls can earn a major scalp on Saturday, and the Stormers have gone pointless again in table terms a day earlier, the Pretoria team will be within only about eight points, with a game in hand.
Such a scenario would also crank up the likelihood that there is something massive at stake when the Bulls entertain the Stormers on the very last day of ordinary season on July 15 …
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