Stormers locks hold key

Springbok locks Eben Etzebeth and Pieter-Steph du Toit will power the Stormers to an important victory over the Bulls at Newlands on Saturday, writes JON CARDINELLI.

The first round of the 2016 Super Rugby tournament will conclude with the biggest derby in South African rugby. It's a contest that should live up to expectations.

Expect an intense scrap at the breakdown. Expect a few teeth-rattling hits in midfield. Expect a lengthy injury list in the aftermath. But most of all, expect a Stormers victory.

As far as results are concerned, the Cape franchise has dominated this match-up in recent years. The Stormers have won six of their last eight games against the Bulls. They've won every north-south derby at Newlands since 2012.

This Saturday, the Stormers will be gunning for a fourth consecutive Super Rugby win against the Bulls. They should get it.

The Bulls have been haemorrhaging talent at an alarming rate for some time. Unfortunately, the conclusion of the 2015 season witnessed an especially significant drain on resources with young as well as ageing stars choosing to further their respective careers abroad.

The Bulls have come into the 2016 Super Rugby season with a new coach in Nollis Marais who has no experience of heading up a franchise at this level. They have lost their star playmaker and goal-kicker in Handré Pollard to a season-ending injury.

The Bulls have had no luck in the lead-up to this tournament. That's unlikely to change when they visit Newlands this weekend.

The Stormers have suffered some big losses in personnel. Prop Steven Kitshoff and ace goal-kicker Demetri Catrakilis are now playing in France. The management dynamic has changed too, with Robbie Fleck taking the reins as interim head coach.

Fleck has pointed out on more than one occasion that this Stormers side is a young one, and that it will take time for the team to gel. This is true when one considers that 22-year-old Robert du Preez has never started at flyhalf for the Super Rugby franchise, and that the midfield partnership of Juan de Jongh and Johnny Kotze is untried at this level. Compare the latter pair to the Bulls' Jan Serfontein and Jesse Kriel, who both featured for the Springboks at the 2015 World Cup.

But where the Stormers have the wood over the Bulls, both in terms of quality and experience, is up front. And it is in the forwards where the coming game will be won and lost.

The Bulls boast some big names in the front row, but the likes of Trevor Nyakane, Adriaan Strauss and Marcel van der Merwe will battle to make an impact at the scrum without the support of their back five.

The Stormers have the men in the front and second row to make a difference. All eyes will be on Etzebeth and Du Toit, two Bok locks who were at the World Cup, to set the tone. The pair will have a big role to play at the breakdowns, scrums and particularly at the lineout.

On Thursday, Fleck spoke about the hype around this derby and the traditional strength of the Bulls. Both Fleck and Stormers captain Juan de Jongh attempted to talk up the Bulls as if they were still that abrasive, all-conquering side of 2009 and 2010.

The reality is that the Bulls' reputation has taken a knock in recent years. The quality of their forward play has been in decline for some time. It could go from bad to worse in 2016, now that Victor Matfield and Flip van der Merwe are no longer there to set the standard at the lineouts.

Can the Stormers take advantage? Du Toit is highly rated as a manager of this set piece, but is new to the Cape franchise. Then there is the fact that both of the Stormers' hookers, namely Bongi Mbonambi and Scarra Ntubeni, have battled to find their lineout jumpers with any great consistency in recent seasons.

That said, the Stormers pack should do enough at the set pieces, collisions and breakdowns to set the platform for their backs. The selection of Jano Vermaak at scrumhalf suggests the Stormers will play a more balanced game. They should be looking to win territory before aiming their runners at the Bulls defence.

Don't expect the Stormers to obtain a bonus point (for three tries more than the opposition). Fleck has made it clear that a good start is crucial to their chances of qualifying for the play-offs. The Cape franchise should be going all out to secure the win and take an important lead at the top of Africa 1.

The Bulls will do their best to unsettle the Stormers and sneak an upset. But with the absence of big names in the second and back row, they will struggle to apply the necessary pressure up front. And without Pollard, the Bulls may battle to breach a well organised Stormers defence.

Overall: Stormers 14, Bulls 10, Draw 1
In Cape Town: Stormers 8, Bulls 4, Draw 1

– The Stormers have won six of their last eight matches against the Bulls, including the last three.
– The Stormers finished their 2015 Super Rugby season with a home loss in the play-offs. They will be aiming to avoid back-to-back losses at home for the first time since the 2011 semi-finals.
– The Bulls have not won away to the Stormers since 2011, failing to score more than 17 points in any of their four defeats since then.
– The Stormers had the best goal-kicking success in Super Rugby last season (81%), while the Bulls had the third best record off the tee (79%).
Source: Sanzaar

Team Top point-scorer 2015 Top try-scorer 2015 Most metres gained 2015 Most tackles 2015
Stormers Demetri Catrakilis (170) Dillyn Leyds (6) Cheslin Kolbe (1182) Nizaam Carr (126)
Bulls Handré Pollard (167) Francois Hougaard (7) Jesse Kriel (1199) Jacques du Plessis (159)

Stormers – 15 Cheslin Kolbe, 14 Kobus van Wyk, 13 Johnny Kotze, 12 Juan de Jongh (co-captain), 11 Dillyn Leyds, 10 Robert du Preez, 9 Jano Vermaak, 8 Nizaam Carr, 7 Schalk Burger, 6 Sikhumbuzo Notshe, 5 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Vincent Koch, 2 Bongi Mbonambi, 1 Oli Kebble.
Subs: 16 Scarra Ntubeni, 17 JC Janse van Rensburg, 18 Frans Malherbe (co-captain), 19 JD Schickerling, 20 Siya Kolisi, 21 Nic Groom, 22 Kurt Coleman, 23 Leolin Zas.

Bulls – 15 Warrick Gelant, 14 Travis Ismaiel, 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 Jan Serfontein, 11 Bjorn Basson, 10 Francois Brummer, 9 Rudy Paige, 8 Arno Botha, 7 Jannes Kirsten, 6 Nic de Jager, 5 Grant Hattingh, 4 RG Snyman, 3 Marcel van der Merwe, 2 Adriaan Strauss (c), 1 Trevor Nyakane.
Subs: 16 Jaco Visagie, 17 Lizo Gqoboka, 18 Hencus van Wyk, 19 Jason Jenkins, 20 Roelof Smit, 21 Piet van Zyl, 22 Tian Schoeman, 23 Burger Odendaal.

Referee: Craig Joubert (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Rasta Rashivhenge (South Africa), Cwengile Jadezweni (South Africa)
TMO: Christie du Preez (South Africa)

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Photo: Steve Haag/Gallo Images

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