Rudy Paige's injury is a significant setback for the Vodacom Bulls ahead of their tactical arm-wrestle with the Stormers. JON CARDINELLI reports.
The Bulls have won six of their last seven games. Credit should go to the forwards as well as flyhalf Handré Pollard. Jesse Kriel and Francois Hougaard deserve praise for their game-shaping counter-attacking efforts. But do not underestimate the contributions of Paige during this Bulls resurgence.
As was witnessed in the recent derby between the Bulls and Sharks, Paige has played an important role as a tactical kicker and attacking link. Unfortunately for the South African conference leaders, Paige sustained a serious knee injury in that game, and will play no part in the coming clash against the Stormers.
Some might say that the Bulls still have the heavy hitters up front as well as the finishers out wide to lay waste to the Stormers at Newlands. And yet, they will be less potent due to the loss of Paige, a key cog in their simple yet brutally effective machine.
Piet van Zyl is expected to replace Paige at No 9 on Saturday. This is the same Van Zyl who started at scrumhalf in the Bulls' first two games of the season, two games which the Pretoria side lost.
While it would be unfair to lay all the blame on Van Zyl for those defeats, it has become increasingly clear over the past few seasons why he is not suited to a structured style of play. His kicking game was not a strength when he was at the Cheetahs, and he has not improved sufficiently since joining the Bulls in 2014.
The switch to the wing has brought the best out of Hougaard, and it would be foolish to move him back to scrumhalf at this stage. Now that Paige is injured, coach Frans Ludeke will be forced to back Van Zyl in that important decision-making role.
This selection will encourage the Stormers. The Cape side dominated the previous meeting between the two sides in round one. They went to Loftus Versfeld with an inexperienced squad, but an excellent game plan. They out-muscled, out-kicked, and out-tackled the Bulls on that occasion. It is the same game plan that brought them success in the recent match against the Super Rugby champions, the Waratahs, in Sydney.
This week, the Stormers pack will be bolstered by the return of skipper and defender in chief, Duane Vermeulen. The Bulls forwards have found some form in recent rounds, and will be up for a physical scrap in Cape Town. As a result, the forward battle may not be decisive. It may come down to the option-taking and execution of the respective halfbacks to determine the flow of the contest, and the result.
The Bulls defence has been good this season, as has the team's counter-attack. Their back-three have proved safe under the high ball, and have made good decisions when running it back.
The Stormers need to ensure that they win the territorial battle this Saturday (they won just 41% of the territory in the recent game against the Force in Perth and were fortunate to escape with a 13-6 win). When they kick, they need to ensure that the Bulls back-three doesn't have the space to launch one of those devastating counter-offensive moves.
Of course, the Stormers have been successful when they have used their own defence as a form of attack. The likes of Cheslin Kolbe will have opportunities to run should Van Zyl's box kicks and tactical probes fail to find their mark. There may have been some trepidation if the Bulls headed into this game with the successful partnership of Paige and Pollard intact, as both halfbacks have been exceptionally accurate in recent weeks. However, with Paige out, the Stormers' chances of winning this massively important match have increased.
This is assuming that they back Demetri Catrakilis at No 10. While the Stormers pivot has won few admirers this season for his attacking play, his goal- and tactical-kicking has contributed to some notable successes. Catrakilis will need to take charge when the Bulls come to town this week, and it goes without saying that Nic Groom, who has been less consistent with the boot this year, will have to lift his game.
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