Locks give Stormers edge

The battle between the impressive yet relatively inexperienced Bulls second row and the Stormers' outstanding lock combination will shape the contest at Loftus Versfeld on Saturday, writes JON CARDINELLI.

Both teams will be desperate to prove a point when they line up in Pretoria this weekend. The Bulls are coming off an unsuccessful tour to Australia that witnessed two losses in three matches. The Stormers are looking to bounce back after an unlikely draw to the Sunwolves in Singapore.

The winner of this fixture will finish the round at the top of the Africa 1 conference. There's a lot more to play for this Saturday than bragging rights in a north-south derby.

That said, the fixture may follow a familiar pattern with the superior pack laying the platform for victory. In the previous match-up at Newlands in round one, the Stormers forwards outmuscled their Bulls counterparts to set up an emphatic 33-9 win.

The Bulls have improved since that defeat, at least as far as their lineout and defence are concerned. According to SARugbymag.co.za's Opta-powered stats, the Bulls boast the most accurate lineout in the competition with a 92% success rate. Rookie lock RG Snyman has won 56 lineouts this season, the third most in the tournament.

However, the man ranked fourth for lineout wins may be the one to watch this Saturday. Pieter-Steph du Toit has enjoyed a great first season with the Stormers, and was one of the few players to impress in the recent draw with the Sunwolves. The multi-talented No 5 has won 55 lineouts, but what's been significant is the seven he's pilfered off the opposition throw.

Despite missing several games due to injury this season, Eben Etzebeth leads the lineout steal stats (nine). One can expect Etzebeth and Du Toit to apply the pressure on the Bulls lineout this weekend and compromise the hosts' momentum from this set piece.

While there have been calls for these teams to embrace a more attacking style of rugby, both the Bulls and Stormers may revert to a direct approach this Saturday. The battle at the gainline should be just as fierce as the one at the lineout.

The defence of both sides has been solid in 2016. The Stormers have conceded the fewest tries and points after 12 rounds. The Bulls are statistically the best defensive unit in the tournament with a tackle success rate of 89%.

Attacking opportunities may be few and far between. What this means is that neither team can afford to spurn a scoring chance when it arises.

The Bulls have some exciting attacking players in their back division. If their forwards set the platform, then Jamba Ulengo and Jesse Kriel will be a force.

But if Du Toit and his teammates have everything their way at the lineouts and collisions, then the visiting backline will be in business. In that scenario, the Bulls will find it difficult to contain the likes of Cheslin Kolbe, who has already beaten 29 defenders (rank nine) and made 613m (rank nine) in 2016.

Overall: Stormers 15, Bulls 10
In Pretoria: Bulls 6, Stormers 6

– The Stormers have won their last four games against the Bulls; a fifth straight win would be their longest in the history of this fixture.
– The Bulls are the only team in the competition who are still undefeated at home (won three, drawn one).
– The Bulls have scored only 14 points in their last two Super Rugby games; never before in the history of the competition have the Bulls been restricted to single figures in three consecutive games.
– The Bulls have conceded just 6.8 clean breaks and 6.5 offloads per game, the fewest of any team in the competition in both categories. They have also missed the fewest tackles per game this season (13.7).
– No player has stolen more lineouts than Stormers pair Eben Etzebeth (nine) and Pieter-Steph du Toit (seven) so far this season.
Source: Opta

Team Top point-scorer Top try-scorer Most metres gained Most tackles
Bulls Francois Brummer (73) Adriaan Strauss, Jamba Ulengo (4) Warrick Gelant (373) Jannes Kirsten (92)
Stormers Jean-Luc du Plessis (64) Vincent Koch, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Sikhumbuzo Notshe, Leolin Zas (3) Cheslin Kolbe (613) Pieter-Steph du Toit (93)

Bulls – 15 SP Marais, 14 Jamba Ulengo, 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 Jan Serfontein, 11 Travis Ismaiel, 10 Francois Brummer, 9 Piet van Zyl, 8 Arno Botha, 7 Jannes Kirsten, 6 Lappies Labuschagne, 5 RG Snyman, 4 Jason Jenkins, 3 Marcel van der Merwe, 2 Adriaan Strauss (c), 1 Lizo Gqoboka.
Subs: 16 Jaco Visagie, 17 Trevor Nyakane, 18 Pierre Schoeman, 19 Grant Hattingh, 20 Deon Stegmann, 21 Rudy Paige, 22 Tian Schoeman, 23 Dries Swanepoel.

Stormers – 15 Cheslin Kolbe, 14 Kobus van Wyk, 13 Johnny Kotze, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Leolin Zas, 10 Jean-Luc du Plessis, 9 Nic Groom, 8 Schalk Burger, 7 Siya Kolisi, 6 Nizaam Carr, 5 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Frans Malherbe (c), 2 Bongi Mbonambi 1 Oli Kebble.
Subs: 16 Scarra Ntubeni, 17 Alistair Vermaak, 18 Vincent Koch, 19 Rynhardt Elstadt, 20 Sikhumbuzo Notshe, 21 Louis Schreuder, 22 Brandon Thomson, 23 Huw Jones.

Referee: Ben O'Keeffe (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Glen Jackson (New Zealand), AJ Jacobs (South Africa)
TMO: Johan Greeff (South Africa)

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Photo: Ryan Wilkisky/BackpagePix

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Jon Cardinelli