Higginbotham can hurt Bulls

The Vodacom Bulls will finish their tour winless if they fail to keep Scott Higginbotham in check in Melbourne this Saturday, writes JON CARDINELLI.

While the Rebels have scored some notable upsets in 2015, they have also let some big opportunities slip. Several weeks ago, they led a struggling Reds side 17-11 at half-time. Unfortunately, they could not maintain their efforts in the second stanza, and went on to lose 46-29.

The one constant in their game has been the performance of Higginbotham, their captain. The Wallabies loose forward is a powerful player with a good defensive reputation, and an even better attacking record. He has taken his game forward in 2015, and this is best illustrated by his try-scoring stats.

As far as forwards are concerned, Higginbotham is the joint-top try-scorer in this year's tournament (the Sharks' Marcell Coetzee and Crusaders' Matt Todd have also scored five tries in 2015). This season, Higginbotham became the leading forwards try-scorer in the tournament's history when he surpassed Owen Finegan's long-standing record (29). Higginbotham has since stretched that record to 32 five-pointers.

The Rebels failed to win a match on their recent two-game tour of South Africa. However, they did show some attacking intent, and both the Stormers and the Sharks battled to keep them at bay. Even when they were a man down for much of the latter game, due to a red card, they still managed to pressure the Sharks defence.

The Bulls have a good record against the Rebels, but one has to consider the situation before making any predictions. They have lost all three matches on their current tour to Australasia. They haven't played well over the past three weeks, and their energy levels will be low in this the fourth and final week of the tour.

They need to win and win big this Saturday if they are to keep their slim play-off hopes alive. But to reiterate, they've shown little enterprise on attack in recent matches. Springbok flyhalf Handré Pollard has also been rested for this clash in Melbourne, and his absence will limit their attack.

The return of Victor Matfield will boost their chances of victory, though. Matfield's organisational skills at the lineout should lend the Bulls an edge in the forward battle. As the stats below confirm, the Rebels' weak point is their lineout.

But if the Bulls are to obtain a narrow, hard-fought victory, their loose forwards will need to fire for 80 minutes. There have been moments on the current tour when the back row has shown the necessary grunt and the guile. Unfortunately, the Bulls just haven't been able to maintain that effort for the game's duration.

The Bulls need to put in a big defensive effort this Saturday. They can't allow the Rebels to generate momentum from the set pieces, and bring the likes of Higginbotham into the game. The Rebels also boast some dangerous finishers out wide in Cam Crawford and Dom Shipperley.

The visitors will also need a special goal-kicking performance from Jacques-Louis Potgieter. If the Bulls' second-string flyhalf is on song, they may well come away with their first win in Australasia since 2013. If not, they may lose their 11th-straight match Down Under.

Overall: Bulls 3, Rebels 0
In Melbourne: Bulls 1, Rebels 0

– The Bulls have scored over 40 points in each of their three wins against the Rebels.
–  Both the Rebels and Bulls are currently enduring their worst runs of form this year; three straight defeats apiece.
– Just three sides have maintained a better lineout success rate than the Bulls (89%) this year, while the Rebels languish last (78%) in this regard.
– Both these sides have conceded eight tries from the opposition half and 11 between halfway and their own 22.
– However, the Rebels have conceded almost twice as many (20) as the Bulls (11) when their opponents start out with the ball inside their 22.
– Just two sides (both five) have conceded fewer tries in the final 20 minutes of matches than the Bulls (six) so far.

Team Top point-scorer Top try-scorer Most metres gained Most tackles
Rebels Mike Harris (111) Scott Higginbotham (5) Sefenaia Naivalu (736) Sean MacMahon (133)
Bulls Handré Pollard (167) Jan Serfontein, Francois Hougaard (5) Jesse Kriel (1078) Jacques du Plessis (141)

Rebels – 15 Mike Harris, 14 Dom Shipperley, 13 Tamati Ellison, 12 Mitch Inman, 11 Cam Crawford, 10 Jack Debreczeni, 9 Nic Stirzaker, 8 Scott Higginbotham, 7 Colby Fainga’a, 6 Sean McMahon, 5 Lopeti Timani, 4 Luke Jones, 3 Paul Alo-Emile, 2 Pat Leafa, 1 Toby Smith.
Subs: 16 Tom Sexton, 17 Cruze Ah-Nau, 18 Tim Metcher, 19 Sam Jeffries, 20 Jordy Reid, 21 Ben Meehan, 22 Bryce Hegarty, 23 Tom English.

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

Referee: Nick Briant (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: James Leckie (Australia), Michael Hogan (Australia)
TMO: Ian Smith (Australia)

SA Rugby magazine team's SuperBru picks

Stormers vs Lions preview

Cheetahs vs Waratahs preview

Hurricanes vs Highlanders preview

Blues vs Crusaders preview

Reds vs Chiefs preview

Force vs Brumbies preview

Photo: Robert Clainflone/Getty Images

Post by

Jon Cardinelli