Pierre Spies, who was named as the captain for the season, will start the Vodacom Bulls’ SuperRugby campaign on the bench but someone with even more experience will be leading the team as they take on the Stormers in a crunch opener at Loftus Versfeld on Saturday.
Victor Matfield, starting in his beloved number five jersey, will captain the Bulls for a competition-record 83rd time, while also extending his appearance record for the franchise to 139, as he starts a 16th season of SuperRugby.
Bulls coach Frans Ludeke said on Wednesday that the decision had been made to ease Spies back into action off the bench, with Arno Botha starting at eighthman, after both Springbok loose forwards were asked how they preferred to manage their comebacks from lengthy injury problems.
“We want the best way for them to come back so we asked them how they felt and we believe the best option is for Pierre to be eased back into action and make a huge impact this weekend in the second half. Starting with Arno is horses-for-courses in a way, there’s no specific reason but Pierre has been out for a while and Arno had no issues in the warm-up games. We believe another week coming off the bench will be the perfect start to the season for Pierre and we’ll take it week-by-week after that,” Ludeke said at the team announcement at Loftus Versveld on Wednesday.
Matfield, who is a strong contender to captain the Springboks at the World Cup if Jean de Villiers does not recover from knee surgery, said for him the appointment was only a temporary one.
“I’m just a stand-in and hopefully Pierre will be ready next week. There’s also Adriaan Strauss who can lead the side, but it’s his first game for the Bulls since 2006, maybe that’s why the coach didn’t pick him, Deon Stegmann did an outstanding job in the warm-ups and in the backs there’s Handre Pollard,” Matfield said.
Hooker Strauss, who played eight games for the Bulls as an U21 star, will start together with fellow Cheetahs imports Trevor Nyakane and Lappies Labuschagne, while the other interesting selections see Piet van Zyl starting at scrumhalf and Francois Hougaard on the left wing. With Pollard as the starting flyhalf there are high hopes the Bulls will sparkle on attack.
“Akona Ndungane and Travis Ismaiel are both not fit and Francois played really well against Saracens on the wing, you can see he enjoys playing there, so that contributed to the decision at scrumhalf. But Piet played especially well in the warm-ups, he makes an impact on front-foot ball and his decision-making was sharp, while Rudy Paige [on the bench] has a good kicking game and game-management skills,” Ludeke explained.
Jacques du Plessis, who will no longer be calling Loftus Versfeld home after this SuperRugby season and is another player who impressed in pre-season, will partner Matfield in the second row, while Jan Serfontein and JJ Engelbrecht will be the centres in a combination that has worked very well before.
Perhaps the most crucial selection, however, is that of the experienced Werner Kruger at tighthead prop and he will have plenty of work to do in giving the Bulls a stable foundation at scrum time.
Bulls team: 15-Jurgen Visser, 14-Bjorn Basson, 13-JJ Engelbrecht, 12-Jan Serfontein, 11-Francois Hougaard, 10-Handre Pollard, 9-Piet van Zyl, 8-Arno Botha, 7-Lappies Labuschagne, 6-Deon Stegmann, 5-Victor Matfield, 4-Jacques du Plessis, 3-Werner Kruger, 2-Adriaan Strauss, 1-Trevor Nyakane. Reserves – 16-Callie Visagie, 17-Morne Mellet, 18-Grant Hattingh, 19-Pierre Spies, 20-Rudy Paige, 21-Jacques-Louis Potgieter, 22-Jesse Kriel, 23-Dayan van der Westhuizen/Neethling Fouche.