The Bulls will finish on top of the Vodacom SuperRugby log if they can beat the Stormers in the final round at Newlands on Saturday, but the home side will be relying on emotion and pride as star wing Bryan Habana pulls on the blue and white jersey for the last time.
Finishing on top of the log would bring with it enormous reward for the Bulls because it means they advance directly to the semi-finals, without having to expend any extra energy on a playoff match and they would play their remaining matches in this year’s competition on the hallowed turf of Loftus Versfeld.
And we can banish any thoughts of rugby in South Africa being played along the lines of what’s best for the country and other democratic notions; the Stormers are not going to hold back on their fiercest rivals just because they are the country’s best hope of winning the competition.
For one, the Stormers will be out to ensure a winning send-off for France-bound Habana, the greatest Springbok winger since The Prince of Wings, Carel du Plessis, and, secondly, they will also want to satisfy their demanding supporters, who have sold out Newlands to come and see another epic north/south derby.
Captain Jean de Villiers, who returns to the team at inside centre, has been speaking of playing for pride in the build-up to the game.
“The focus is on our pride and playing for the jersey,” said De Villiers. “We are professional rugby players and we have a job to do, and that is to go out and do our best to win. We have disappointed ourselves this season and we’ve also disappointed our coaches and supporters and we are busy trying to make up for that by finishing the season well. We’ve won four in a row and we would like to make it five against the Bulls.
“Clashes between the Stormers and the Bulls are always huge and the ticket sales for this game have summed that up. The focus is on our pride as a team and playing for the jersey, which means we will do our best to win the game.”
Stormers supporters did not see too much pride from their team when they last played the Bulls – they meekly succumbed to a 25-17 defeat at Loftus in the opening round of South African action.
Bulls flyhalf Morne Steyn killed the Stormers’ chances that day with his kicking, both tactically and at goal, and coach Allister Coetzee has responded by dropping his flyhalf Elton Jantjies and replacing him with the inexperienced Gary van Aswegen. To be fair, though, regular fullback Joe Pietersen, the Stormers’ best kicker, is out injured and choosing Van Aswegen gives them a right and left-footed kicker with Gio Aplon moving into the number 15 jersey.
Rynhardt Elstadt has returned to the starting loose trio and will help beef up a Stormers pack that will have to face up to the physicality of the Bulls far better than they did in their previous meeting.
The Bulls also have important changes, with Springboks Jan Serfontein and Francois Hougaard both out injured and replaced by Francois Venter and Jano Vermaak respectively.
The 22-year-old Venter is another bright midfield prospect and he started all but one game for the Bulls at inside centre in last year’s Currie Cup and also made eight SuperRugby appearances.
Vermaak is arguably the form scrumhalf in South Africa this year and made his return from the bench last weekend after a hamstring injury that cut short his Springbok campaign. He and Steyn form a formidable half-back combination and that is one area where the Bulls seem to have a clear advantage over the youthful Stormers partnership of Van Aswegen and Louis Schreuder.
There will possibly be even more emotion at King’s Park on Saturday as the end of a Sharks era is reached, while the Southern Kings will be desperately hoping they are not playing their last SuperRugby match.
There have been few more dedicated servants of KwaZulu-Natal rugby over the past 30 years than Hugh Reece-Edwards, but he and his co-coach Grant Bashford, both standing in after the unceremonious firing of their boss, John Plumtree, will be in charge for the last time before John Smit’s regime change takes effect in Durban.
The Sharks players, understandably ill-at-ease over the way Plumtree was dispensed with even though he had been promised a two-year contract extension, probably have more to gain from the game than their Kings opponents, who are a second-string outfit anyway.
At this stage, nothing is more important for the Kings than the promotion/relegation games against the Lions in a fortnight’s time, so they have rested all their regular starters who have injury niggles.
That means no more than three players who started last weekend against the Stormers – lock David Bulbring, terrific eighthman Jacques Engelbrecht and wing Marcello Sampson – are in the run-on XV for King’s Park.
No team has had more selection challenges than the Sharks in this year’s competition and this week the complications were Butch James’s four-week suspension for his wild tackle against the Bulls and a concurrent injury to Pat Lambie.
That means Riaan Viljoen, who showed in last year’s Currie Cup that he is more than comfortable in the number 10 jersey, shifts from fullback to flyhalf.
And while Habana is saying goodbye in Cape Town, fellow Springbok wing JP Pietersen returns to action this weekend in Durban.
The stadium may have been called King’s Park since 1891, but it has also been dubbed The Shark Tank. The second-string Kings are more likely to feel that they’ve been dropped inside the latter than feeling at home on Saturday.
The Sharks (v Southern Kings, Saturday 17:05): Odwa Ndungane, JP Pietersen, Louis Ludik, Meyer Bosman, Lwazi Mvovo, Riaan Viljoen, Charl McLeod, Keegan Daniel, Jean Deysel, Marcell Coetzee, Franco van der Merwe, Edwin Hewitt, Jannie du Plessis, Bismarck du Plessis, Tendai Mtawarira. Replacements: Kyle Cooper, Wiehahn Herbst, Jandré Marais, Willem Alberts, Jacques Botes, Cobus Reinach, Fred Zeilinga.
Southern Kings (v The Sharks, Saturday 17:05): Siviwe Soyizwapi, Hadleigh Parkes, Waylon Murray, Shane Gates, Marcello Sampson, George Whitehead, Nicolas Vergallo, Jacques Engelbrecht, Mpho Mbiyozo, Devin Oosthuizen, David Bulbring, Steven Sykes, Kevin Buys, Hannes Franklin, Charl du Plessis. Replacements – Grant Kemp, Bandise Maku, Darron Nell, Thabo Mamojele, Aidon Davis, Shaun Venter, Michael Killian.
Stormers (v Bulls, Saturday 19:15): Gio Aplon, Gerhard van den Heever, Juan de Jongh, Jean de Villiers, Bryan Habana, Gary van Aswegen, Louis Schreuder, Nizaam Carr, Rynhardt Elstadt, Deon Fourie, De Kock Steenkamp, Eben Etzebeth, Brok Harris, Scarra Ntubeni, Steven Kitshoff. Replacements – Martin Bezuidenhout, Pat Cilliers, Gerbrandt Grobler, Don Armand, Nic Groom, Elton Jantjies, Damian de Allende.
Bulls (v Stormers, Saturday 19:15): Zane Kirchner, Akona Ndungane, JJ Engelbrecht, Francois Venter, Bjorn Basson, Morné Steyn, Jano Vermaak, Dewald Potgieter, Jacques Potgieter, Deon Stegmann, Grant Hattingh, Flip van der Merwe, Werner Kruger, Chiliboy Ralepelle, Dean Greyling. Replacements – Callie Visagie, Frik Kirsten, Jacques du Plessis, Jono Ross, Rudy Paige, Jürgen Visser, Morné Mellett.
Other fixtures: Crusaders v Hurricanes (Friday 9:35); Melbourne Rebels v Highlanders (Friday 11:40); Blues v Chiefs (Saturday 9:35); Waratahs v Reds (Saturday 11:40); Force v Brumbies (Saturday 13:45). Bye – Cheetahs (who will climb from 6th to 5th if the Reds lose to the Waratahs).