Expect Victor Matfield and the Vodacom Bulls to target the Blues' lineout in their season-defining clash in Auckland on Friday, writes JON CARDINELLI.
In the buildup to the Rugby Championship Test at Ellis Park last year, All Blacks hooker Keven Mealamu was asked about Matfield, his arch-nemesis. For the better part of a decade, the iconic Springbok No 5 set the standard in lineout play, and was especially effective against Mealamu and the All Blacks.
When Mealamu was asked about Matfield's comeback to Test rugby in 2014, he responded with a rye smile. Mealamu wasn't too proud to admit that Matfield so often won the mental and physical battle at this set piece. Mealamu half-joked that Matfield's return to Test rugby was bad news for him.
Mealamu won't start against the Bulls this Friday, but he will be introduced from the bench at some stage in the contest. Matfield will look to get inside the head of Mealamu once more. The Bulls' lineout kingpin will also target the Blues' starting No 2 James Parsons.
The Blues rank ninth in the competition for lineout success rate. Significantly, the Bulls rank second for lineout steals per match. The Bulls will look to maximise their advantage at this set piece, and will be even more dangerous now that Matfield is in tow.
Matfield has only featured in seven matches this season due to injuries as well as the Bulls' agreement with Saru to manage elite Bok players. It's for this reason that he doesn't rank, at least statistically speaking, among the best Super Rugby lineout forwards in 2015.
But we should expect a big performance from the Bok legend this Friday. Matfield has to make a big impact both as an individual and as the manager of the lineout. Significantly, he will partner some of the finest lineout forwards in world rugby. Adriaan Strauss is a world-class hooker, Flip van der Merwe has the mental and physical capacity to lead the lineout himself, and Pierre Spies is one of the best exponents in terms of securing ball at the tail.
The Bulls should win this set piece. Going by Frans Ludeke's selections, they will also have a crack at the Blues' scrum.
Trevor Nyakane has been shifted to loosehead to accommodate Marcel van der Merwe at No 3. The latter impressed for the Boks last season, and will want to make a further statement when he packs down against All Blacks veteran Tony Woodcock this Friday. While Nyakane has been moved to No 1, he will also have his work cut out for him when he lines up against tighthead Charlie Faumuina.
If the Bulls can win the tight-five battle, they have the right mix in the loose forwards to build on the advantage at the gainline and breakdown. Now that Rudy Paige is back at No 9, there will be less pressure on Handré Pollard from a tactical viewpoint.
The Blues won't be wanting for motivation. They have a good record against the Bulls in New Zealand, and will be looking to improve on their overall 2015 record of two from 12.
Unfortunately for the hosts, they are without Jerome Kaino, the kind of leader and player who would thrive in such an abrasive contest. They have an excellent goal-kicker in Ihaia West and some dangerous finishers out wide, but if the Blues fail to win the battle up front, they won't win the battle on the scoreboard.
The Bulls have the personnel to maintain such an assault for 80 minutes. Jacques du Plessis and Deon Stegmann will provide impetus from the bench in the second half. And if Matfield goes the distance, there will be no respite for the Blues at lineout time.
HEAD TO HEAD
Overall: Blues 11, Bulls 7, Draw 1
In New Zealand: Blues 9, Bulls 1
STATS AND FACTS
– In 19 meetings between these sides, a losing bonus point has been scored in just six encounters, though there was one draw.
– The Blues have lost two in a row against the Bulls, but won the two prior to that. The Bulls won on their last visit to Auckland, but lost their previous nine away to the Blues.
– The Blues’ last two matches have produced 65 and 64 points respectively. Their 13 matches prior to that all produced under 55 in total and an average of 40.
– The Bulls have not won outside of their own country since defeating the Blues in their last visit to Auckland in March 2013. Since then, they have lost all seven of their matches in Australia and New Zealand.
– Ihaia West has kicked 30/35 this season (86%). Jacques-Louis Potgieter (10/12) and Handré Pollard (48/60) have kicked at 80%-plus this season.
|Team||Top point-scorer||Top try-scorer||Most metres gained||Most tackles|
|Blues||Ihaia West (83)||Jerome Kaino, Melani Nanai (3)||Charles Piutau (701)||Brendon O'Connor (96)|
|Bulls||Handré Pollard (143)||Francois Hougaard (5)||Jesse Kriel (961)||Deon Stegmann (114)|
Blues – 15 Lolagi Visinia, 14 Ben Lam, 13 Francis Saili, 12 George Moala, 11 Melani Nanai, 10 Ihaia West, 9 Jamison Gibson-Park, 8 Steven Luatua (c), 7 Brendon O'Connor, 6 Akira Ioane, 5 Josh Bekhuis, 4 Culum Retallick, 3 Charlie Faumuina, 2 James Parsons, 1 Tony Woodcock.
Subs: 16 Keven Mealamu, 17 Ofa Tu'ungafasi, 18 Sam Pratley, 19 Will Lloyd, 20 Blake Gibson, 21 Jimmy Cowan/Jamie Booth, 22 Simon Hickey, 23 Matt Vaega.
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 Arno Botha, 6 Lappies Labuschagne, 5 Victor Matfield, 4 Flip van de Merwe, 3 Marcel van der Merwe, 2 Adriaan Strauss, 1 Trevor Nyakane.
Subs: 16 Callie Visagie, 17 Dean Greyling, 18 Werner Kruger, 19 Jacques du Plessis, 20 Deon Stegmann, 21 Burger Odendaal, 22 Jacques-Louis Potgieter, 23 Travis Ismaiel.
Photo: Samuel Shivambu/Backpagepix