Jon Cardinelli

Lineout test looms for Bulls

The Bulls may boast the best lineout stats in the competition but their task against a polished Brumbies set piece will be made tougher by the absence of Juandré Kruger and Pierre Spies, writes JON CARDINELLI.

The smart money is on the Bulls to beat the Brumbies this Saturday and advance to their fourth final in seven years. To say they will enjoy home advantage is an understatement, as Loftus Versfeld remains one of the toughest places to visit for any opposition team. The Bulls will also come into this game well rested, having secured a semi-final berth in the competition and thus being granted an extra week's reprieve.

Conversely, the Brumbies will be battling fatigue. Last Sunday's battle with the Cheetahs was a physical one, and there will be no respite as they are forced to fly to South Africa and tackle the Bulls just six days later. The odds are against them. But then, these odds can be overcome.

The Bulls side that finish this tournament will not match the team that started in mid-February. They've lost Spies, their captain, to a season-ending injury as well as their lineout kingpin to an early release to French club Racing Metro.

The Bulls enjoy a formidable forwards reputation and the stats recorded over the 16 league games confirm they are the best lineout unit in the competition. But when you look at the quality of their performances in the past three league games and how they have suffered a dip in form, you begin to see why they are not unbeatable.

It's a hope that Brumbies coach Jake White and his charges will cling to as they head into this Saturday's clash.

The Bulls have outstanding structures and they have one of the greatest rugby minds of the modern era coaching their forwards. And yet Victor Matfield can only do so much in preparation. It's up to the players to put the plans into practice come game day.

If Kruger were still wearing that No 5 jersey and taking charge of the lineout, the Bulls would be favourites to dominate this set piece and use it as a launchpad for attack. But in the absence of the Springbok lock, the Bulls may struggle to have everything their own way.

The Bulls will also miss Spies in this department. The Bok No 8 may not be one of the most prominent players at the collisions or breakdowns but he is renowned as one of the best in the world at the tail of the lineout.

White won the World Cup with the Springboks in 2007 and worked closely with Matfield in the four-year build-up. He understands Matfield's strengths and weaknesses, just as he understands the limitations of South African teams like the Bulls.

Indeed, much of what works for the Bulls has been implemented at the Brumbies since White came to power in 2012. The Brumbies place an emphasis on forward dominance. They also have some of the finest tactical-kickers in the competition and will fight hard to win the territorial battle this weekend.

White has turned the Brumbies into a fearsome lineout unit, and it is here where they could trouble the Bulls this weekend. It seems crazy to suggest it, but you have to remember that without Kruger and Spies, the Bulls lineout is light on experience and quality.

The Bulls are No 1 in the competition in terms of the lineout-win percentage on their own ball, and tied second for the average lineout steals. Interestingly, the team they are tied with are the Brumbies.

White's men boast better scrum stats than those of the Bulls and they top the tournament for rucks won. They will be feeling the effects of the match against the Cheetahs as well as the weariness of extensive travel, but they certainly won't be easy to beat.

The Bulls were largely outplayed in their final league match, against the Stormers, particularly in the forward disciplines. They have not been as good at the lineout since they lost Spies  and Kruger.

The replacements at No 5 and 8 will need to step up this weekend as you can bet your house that the Bulls will not alter their forward-oriented approach. They should still do enough to beat the Brumbies, but it's important that they build momentum at the set pieces ahead of next week's possible final against either the Chiefs or the Crusaders.

The Chiefs have one of the worst lineouts in the competition while the Crusaders have one of the best. In fact, the Crusaders lead the tournament stats for average lineout steals per match.

If they were to progress to a final against the men from Pretoria, they would certainly pose a big threat at the set pieces.

Photo: Sydney Mahlangu/BackpagePix

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