It was the four successive defeats that the Bulls suffered against the Stormers and Western Province last year that were one of the major reasons for the change in approach of the Loftus Versfeld side and the Bulls will get an early indication of how well they have reinvented themselves when they take on the Cape side on Saturday in their Vodacom SuperRugby opener in Pretoria.
The pattern of those four defeats was similar: the Bulls forwards would dominate, they would bash away against the solid Stormers/WP defence or the ball would be kicked into the opposition 22, only for the ball to be lost and Allister Coetzee’s men would roar away for a turnover try.
Bulls captain Victor Matfield said the focus during their preparations was on raising the intensity and pace of their play, making try-scoring the goal after Bulls coach Frans Ludeke has previously admitted getting penalties was the desired outcome. The Stormers almost bring Sevens skills to their attacking play and the Bulls want to follow suit.
“We’ve put in a huge effort in the pre-season and the big difference has been in our conditioning because we have to reload quicker in defence and organise our attack. We want to go out and score tries because that’s almost always how you win and most times, the team that scores the most tries wins the competition,” Matfield said.
The veteran lock acknowledged that their opponents on Saturday have given them a torrid time recently on the counter-attack, but he hoped the tables would be turned on Saturday.
“They usually have a very quick back three and Juan de Jongh is a good stepper, so they’re dangerous off turnover ball. We mustn’t give them any of that, but we hope to turn over some free ball ourselves, because that’s where the tries lie,” Matfield said.
Publicly, Coetzee has acknowledged that his inexperienced team are the underdogs at Loftus Versfeld, but there is enough class and firepower in the Stormers side for the Bulls to be wary.
They won’t lack for inspiration with Duane Vermeulen leading from the front at eighthman, a comforting presence for the five players getting their first taste of SuperRugby – wings Johnny Kotze and Dillyn Leyds, replacement back Huw Jones and front-rowers Vincent Koch and Wilco Louw.
The scrums will be the main area of concern for the Bulls on Saturday, as Ludeke admitted.
“The scrums on Saturday are going to be a test, but the game against Saracens was a blessing in disguise because it alerted us to where we need to improve. It will be a huge battle because the scrums give you field position from penalties. We get rhythm and confidence from the scrum, but every one is a new contest,” Ludeke said.
The words “field position” are a hint that the Bulls are perhaps not quite ready to go all the way down the same road as the Stormers and the danger of being caught in between game-plans certainly exists for the home side.
Bulls: 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.
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, 7-Michael Rhodes, 6-Rynhardt Elstadt, 5-Ruan Botha, 4-Jean Kleyn, 3-Vincent Koch, 2-Scarra Ntubeni, 1-Steven Kitshoff. Reserves – 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.