Super Rugby

Stormers v Bulls: 4 pivotal duels

Cape Town – There are plenty of compelling reasons why backing the SA conference-leading Bulls seems a sound idea for the Super Rugby derby against the Stormers at Newlands on Saturday.

Then again, you could probably roll virtually as many “advantage Stormers” theories off your tongue, in a topsy-turvy old season where forecasting matches has been a traumatic exercise for plenty of punters.

In the Bulls’ favour, for example? Well, the memory of their 40-3 first-round demolition of these foes at Loftus seems a decent start.

Or how about the fact that they have generally played the more rounded rugby than their fierce southern rivals this season, drawing their outside backs rather more seamlessly into attacking play? Or the presence of such revered names in key slots as Western Cape-born Handre Pollard at flyhalf (the tournament’s top points-scorer at this juncture), and rugged Duane Vermeulen, hardly a stranger to the Stormers culture, as eighth-man?

But then there are ample reasons not to write off the hosts, either ... especially bearing in mind that a convincing, avenging win could even catapult them (slightly long shot, it is true) from top to bottom on the exceedingly tight group log.

The Stormers have one of the more forceful, cohesive forward units in the competition -- who must wonder sometimes why they end on the wrong side of results -- certain mercurial, dangerous individuals of their own, the obvious benefits applicable from home advantage this weekend, and a striking battery of Springbok engine-roomers (Eben Etzebeth, Bongi Mbonambi and Wilco Louw) on the bench who should add real impetus in the second half.

So here are some one-on-one match-ups that I feel could make a difference in swaying this one …

Steven Kitshoff (Stormers) v Trevor Nyakane (Bulls)

If this fixture stays on a caution-punctuated knife edge, as well-matched South African derbies often enough do, whoever gets the upper hand at scrum-time could be a major tiebreaker. The Stormers may be expected to edge things in an area where the Bulls have long been moderate, at best … but that could just change if popular Nyakane, on his 100th Super Rugby appearance, is all fire and brimstone at tighthead. He has the difficult task of subduing home loose-head powerhouse Kitshoff, who has the additional benefit of a seasoned international No 3 packing down on the other side of the home front row in Frans Malherbe.

Siya Kolisi (Stormers) v Marco van Staden (Bulls)

Fresh off a partial break (he was a substitute last week), Springbok and Stormers skipper Kolisi will be required to lead by example on what should be a passion-laden afternoon at Newlands. He has simmered without quite discovering his optimal form in recent weeks, and him being more influential at the breakdown, for instance, would be a major help to the Stormers’ quest for a mild upset in this clash. His experience should stand him in good stead, though, for a direct

showdown on the open side with young Bulls wrecking ball Van Staden, recently back from a longish layoff. The visiting No 6 earned two caps off the bench for the Boks last year, so this would be an ideal time to rekindle green-and-gold squad aspirations in RWC year.

Herschel Jantjies (Stormers) v Ivan van Zyl (Bulls)

The battle just outside of this channel between in-form Pollard and the Stormers’ debatably-recalled Jean-Luc du Plessis at No 10 will be important, of course … but the service they get from scrumhalf is no trifling matter. Diminutive Jantjies is growing steadily into what has long been a problem spot for the Stormers, even as his game management still contains understandable rough edges, while the Bulls continue to favour steady Van Zyl over the more adventurous Embrose Papier for their own No 9 duties at present. Still, having two Bok-capped scrumhalves amidst the matchday 23 cannot be a bad thing, with Papier introducing slightly different qualities off the splinters if need be at Newlands.

JJ Engelbrecht (Stormers) v Jesse Kriel (Bulls)

This may not seem the most glamorous of the match-ups on paper, but veteran journeyman and versatile backline figure Engelbrecht – who previously boasts a solid stint in Pretoria – has a demanding, short-notice role in trying to keep in check the Bulls’ sprightly Springbok outside centre. Well-muscled Kriel has shown improved guile and subtlety to go with his other attributes this year – including pleasing draw-and-pass qualities – and it will not have escaped his attention that lanky Engelbrecht is a late Stormers stand-in for injured Ruhan Nel at No 13: the former SA Sevens star was just beginning to settle nicely into the role this season after a rocky start, so this is an annoyance for Robbie Fleck and his lieutenants as they try to pep up the potency of their three-quarters …

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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