Bulls flankers hold key

The Vodacom Bulls' chances of bouncing back against the Chiefs in Rotorua have been improved with the promotion of Deon Stegmann and Jacques du Plessis, writes JON CARDINELLI.

The Bulls are coming off a campaign-damaging loss to the Blues. They will lament a defeat to one of the weaker teams in this year's tournament. They will know that their approach in Auckland lacked physicality as much as it lacked variation.

Coach Frans Ludeke has responded by making several changes to his starting pack. Stegmann replaces Lappies Labuschagne at openside flank, while the impressive youngster Du Plessis ousts a Springbok in Arno Botha at No 7. The other change sees Callie Visagie coming in for hooker Adriaan Strauss, who has been rested for this game.

While the Bulls will miss Strauss at the set pieces and at the breakdowns, they will be boosted by the inclusion of Stegmann and Du Plessis on the flanks. Labuschagne and Botha failed to make an impact in last week's battle at the tackle. The Bulls improved in this area when Stegmann and Du Plessis were introduced in the second half of that fixture.

The Bulls will need to produce a powerful and accurate forward performance if they are to subdue the Chiefs this Friday. They will, of course, be counting on an individual like Stegmann to influence the contest at the rucks. Du Plessis will be tasked with taking the visitors beyond the gainline, and thus laying a platform for the back division to attack.

The Chiefs boast a fierce reputation at the point of contact. And yet, the absence of several big names may be detrimental to their cause in the coming game.

While the first-choice loose forwards are available, the Chiefs are down to the bare bones in the second row. Brodie Retallick and Matt Symons are out with injuries, and Michael Fitzgerald is battling a niggle of his own.

There is a chance Ross Filipo, who is better know as a media figure these days, will need to slot in at lock. It's a big ask for a 36-year-old who officially retired at the end of 2014. Can he adapt to the pace of Super Rugby at this point, and to the physicality of a contest against the Bulls?

The visitors should build on what they did right at the set pieces last week. If they improve at the breakdowns and collisions, then that potentially dangerous Bulls backine will come into the game.

The Chiefs are also without several backline stars. They will miss Sonny Bill Williams's physical presence in midfield, the experience of Aaron Cruden at No 10, and the finishing ability of winger James Lowe.

Given the lengthy list of absentees, it would appear the Bulls have a great opportunity to score a rare win. However, if they rock up in Rotorua with the same complacent attitude they took into the game in Auckland, they will suffer their ninth-straight loss in Australasia.

Overall: Chiefs 9, Bulls 8, Draw 2
In New Zealand: Chiefs 7, Bulls 1, Draw 1

– The Chiefs have won just one of their last six games against the Bulls (drawn one, lost four), conceding an average of 38 points per game in this run.
– The Chiefs have won their last 10 home games against South African opposition, with their last defeat coming back in 2010 against the Stormers.
– The Bulls are on a run of eight consecutive Super Rugby defeats outside of South Africa.
– The Chiefs have averaged 17.2 offloads per game this season, a tournament-high, while the Bulls have averaged the fewest (5.3).

Team Top point-scorer Top try-scorer Most metres gained Most tackles
Chiefs Aaron Cruden (93) Charlie Ngatai, James Lowe (5) James Lowe (745) Sam Cane (134)
Bulls Handré Pollard (151) Francois Hougaard (5) Jesse Kriel (1,011) Deon Stegmann (123)

Chiefs – 15 Tom Marshall, 14 Hosea Gear, 13 Charlie Ngatai, 12 Anton Lienert-Brown, 11 Bryce Heem, 10 Damian McKenzie, 9 Augustine Pulu, 8 Michael Leitch, 7 Sam Cane, 6 Liam Messam (c), 5 Johan Bardoul, 4 Michael Fitzgerald/Ross Filipo, 3 Ben Tameifuna, 2 Hika Elliot, 1 Mitchell Graham.
Subs: 16 Quentin MacDonald, 17 Siate Tokolahi, 18 Pauliasi Manu, 19 Brian Alainu'uese, 20 Maama Vaipulu, 21 Brad Weber, 22 Andrew Horrell, 23 Tim Nanai-Williams.

Bulls – 15 Jesse Kriel, 14 Francois Hougaard, 13 JJ Engelbrecht, 12 Jan Serfontein, 11 Bjorn Basson, 10 Handré Pollard, 9 Rudy Paige, 8 Pierre Spies (c), 7 Jacques du Plessis, 6 Deon Stegmann, 5 Victor Matfield, 4 Flip van de Merwe, 3 Marcel van der Merwe, 2 Callie Visagie, 1 Trevor Nyakane.
Subs: 16 Jaco Visagie, 17 Dean Greyling, 18 Werner Kruger, 19 Arno Botha, 20 Lappies Labuschagné, 21 Jacques-Louis Potgieter, 22 Burger Odendaal, 23 Travis Ismaiel.

Referee: Chris Pollock
Assistant referees: Glen Jackson, Aki Aso
TMO: Glenn Newman

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Photo: Gerhard Steenkamp/BackpagePix

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