The Bulls will rely heavily on Handré Pollard to win the north-south derby against the Stormers at Loftus Versfeld this Saturday, writes JON CARDINELLI.
The Sharks and the Bulls represent South Africa's best chance of a Vodacom Super Rugby title in 2015. The reason for such confidence in the Bulls is down to the return of several key players from injury, as well as some important signings.
That said, it may be some time before the new players settle into the Bulls' structures and the team plays to its potential. The Pretoria franchise may be vulnerable in the first few rounds of this year's tournament, even at Loftus Versfeld.
Fortunately, they have an experienced captain in Victor Matfield, who will realise that points on the board are what matter at this early stage of the season. Matfield will surely instruct Pollard to kick for goal in the first half of this week's clash. The Bulls certainly have the personnel to run the ball, but we may only witness a more attacking display in the final quarter.
The Bulls will look to play a game of pressure and suffocate. With Matfield in tow, they have the better lineout, and this is but one of the reasons Pollard will be instructed to kick for the corners.
We should also expect Pollard to test the Stormers' back three with a series of garryowens. While Dillyn Leyds, Johnny Kotze and Cheslin Kolbe are dangerous from broken play, all three lack experience at this level of rugby. Leyds and Kotze will be making their Super Rugby debuts on Saturday, while Kolbe only has seven caps.
The Bulls will put up the high ball, and deploy their chasers to apply the pressure. Bjorn Basson and Francois Hougaard will be expected to win the ensuing aerial battle against the less experienced Stormers wingers and fullback. These tactics are not particularly imaginative, but they will be effective.
On paper, the Stormers boast the more settled pack. In the pre-season, the Cape franchise showed their intent to play a more expansive brand of rugby. Unfortunately, it's that intent which could prove their undoing this Saturday.
For the Stormers to upset the Bulls at home, they must keep the game tight. They must target the Bulls at the scrum and breakdown, and avoid conceding turnovers that will bring the Bulls' potent back divsion into the contest.
The Bulls were exposed at the scrum in the pre-season match against Saracens. One cannot expect the Pretoria franchise to fire at this set piece on Saturday, as two members of their starting tight five (Trevor Nyakane and Adriaan Strauss) are new to the set-up, and Jacques du Plessis is a make-shift lock. The Bulls won't have the added benefit of Marcel van der Merwe, who is out with an injury, coming off the bench in the second half.
Flank Lappies Labuschagne is another newcomer, while No 8 Arno Botha has not played much rugby in the past two seasons. This will impact on the Bulls' synergy at the scrum as well as their performance at the breakdown.
The Stormers must do all they can to dominate the collisions and breakdowns. They must ensure they bank any points on offer, and in this respect, it will give them confidence to know they have one of the country's finest goal-kickers in Demetri Catrakilis.
But if the Bulls can achieve parity in these departments, they have the kicking game to hurt the Stormers. Pollard will be a key man in terms of winning territory, and converting pressure into points. And if the Bulls are well ahead at half-time, the hosts may change tack with Pollard using his more celebrated attacking strengths to put the result beyond doubt.
HEAD TO HEAD
Overall: Bulls 10, Stormers 12, Draw 1
In Pretoria: Bulls 6, Stormers 5
STATS THAT MATTER
93% – Pollard's goal-kicking success rate in 2014 (26 from 28 attempts)
1 – The number of times the Bulls have lost at Lotfus Versfeld in the past 19 games
91% – The Bulls' lineout success rate in 2014 (Rank 1)
78% – The Stormers' lineout success rate in 2014 (Rank 15)
Bulls – 15 Jürgen Visser, 14 Bjorn Basson, 13 JJ Engelbrecht, 12 Jan Serfontein, 11 Francois Hougaard, 10 Handré Pollard, 9 Piet Van Zyl, 8 Arno Botha, 7 Lappies Labuschagne, 6 Deon Stegmann, 5 Victor Matfield (c), 4 Jacques Du Plessis, 3 Werner Kruger, 2 Adriaan Strauss, 1 Trevor Nyakane.
Subs: 16 Callie Visagie, 17 Morné Mellet, 18 Dayan van der Westhuizen/Neethling Fouche, 19 Grant Hattingh, 20 Pierre Spies, 21 Rudy Paige, 22 Jacques-Louis Potgieter, 23 Jesse Kriel.
Stormers – 15 Cheslin Kolbe, 14 Johnny Kotze, 13 Juan de Jongh, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Dillyn Leyds, 10 Demetri Catrakilis, 9 Nic Groom, 8 Duane Vermeulen (c), 7 Michael Rhodes, 6 Rynhardt Elstadt, 5 Ruan Botha, 4 Jean Kleyn, 3 Vincent Koch, 2 Scarra Ntubeni, 1 Steven Kitshoff
Subs: 16 Bongi Mbonambi, 17 Oli Kebble, 18 Wilco Louw, 19 Jurie van Vuuren, 20 Nizaam Carr, 21 Louis Schreuder, 22 Kurt Coleman, 23 Huw Jones.
Photo: Lee Warren/Gallo Images