While the army of supporters at Loftus Versfeld might not actually sell out the stadium, the Bulls will appreciate their help but not be relying on it for victory in their Vodacom SuperRugby semi-final against the Brumbies on Saturday.
Instead of home ground advantage and a phenomenal record at Loftus Versfeld, the Bulls will put their faith in being a well-drilled team that makes the right decisions at the right time, and the fact that they have way more experience of knockout SuperRugby than the rebuilding Brumbies do.
The Bulls have won two semi-finals and two finals and lost in just one qualifier since 2009, while the Brumbies last appeared in the playoffs back in 2004, when they won the title, which explains the presence of veterans George Smith and Clyde Rathbone in their starting line-up.
Brumbies coach Jake White knows how important it is for his team to make a good start in order to silence the passionate Loftus Versfeld crowd, which may or may not be a full-house, with only 30,000 tickets sold by Thursday morning.
The last time the Brumbies came to Pretoria and won was back in 2006 and White doesn’t want his team to “freeze” in the opening exchanges, like the Cheetahs did against them last weekend in Canberra.
The Brumbies have carried the ball more than the Bulls this season, have gained more metres and beaten more defenders so they might just decide to keep ball in hand a bit more than they did against the Cheetahs, especially in the opening stages. They did this to great effect against the Sharks in Durban in March, scoring four first-half tries to settle the outcome early on.
The Bulls will certainly be mindful of stopping the Brumbies’ attacking threats out wide, with wing Henry Speight being the second leading try-scorer in SuperRugby this season and long-striding fullback Jesse Mogg always a threat when he joins the line or counter-attacks.
The Bulls have one of the best kicking games in the competition and the best lineout (hooker Chiliboy Ralepelle has been the best thrower overall), so they will undoubtedly look to force the Brumbies back into their own territory and then pressurise them at the set-piece.
Where the Brumbies will target the Bulls will be in the scrums and at the breakdowns. The Australians earned six scrum penalties off them in Canberra when they beat the Bulls 23-20 at the end of March, while Smith has served them well at the rucks, where the Brumbies have won the third-most turnovers in the competition.
The Brumbies will follow the Sharks’ and Stormers’ approach of disrupting the Bulls at the breakdown, and injured captain Pierre Spies spoke of the importance of ensuring the referee (Craig Joubert) favoured them in that crucial area on Saturday.
“You have to make the breakdown work for you and a lot depends on how the referee interprets that area. George Smith is a brilliant player and we’ll obviously have to nullify him, but the breakdown is something you have to look at during the game and sort out. Even if it’s a tough day at the breakdown, as long as you get the result, that’s the important thing,” Spies said.
Interestingly, not losing possession at the rucks is an area the Bulls have generally been able to tick in this year’s competition, as they have conceded the fourth-least turnovers, just marginally more than the Brumbies. Other areas the Bulls can tick are discipline – they’ve conceded the fourth-least penalties while the Brumbies have infringed the most – the ability of their backline to make clean breaks (7th, Brumbies 11th) and their goalkicking, which has been the best in the competition thanks to Morne Steyn’s 86% success rate.
White, who had a reliable goalkicker as his first choice for the Springboks, will be nervously contemplating the 70% success rate of the Brumbies when kicking at goal this season.
As devout as most of the Bulls are, the Brumbies know there will be no Christian charity awaiting them at Loftus Versfeld on Saturday. Jake White’s men have lengthy odds to overcome but if they hold their nerve and do the basics better than the Bulls, then they can certainly come away victorious.
“It’s finals rugby, so it’s about pressure, both applying and absorbing it. We have to use our opportunities and I hope for a clinical performance,” Spies added.
While the Bulls are favoured to win at home, maintaining their unbeaten record at Loftus Versfeld this year, it seems only a minority of people are backing the Chiefs to win at home against the Crusaders in their semi-final in Hamilton.
Finals rugby is when the Crusaders, appearing in an extraordinary 12th successive semi-final, are generally at their best and the Crusaders machine is growing more powerful every week. They sent out a chilling warning last weekend that they are peaking when they demolished the Reds 38-9 in their qualifier and the scarring is still fresh for the Chiefs after the seven-time champions hammered them 43-15 three weeks ago.
Chiefs coach Dave Rennie is saying it suits his team to be underdogs, but his anxious state of mind is perhaps revealed by the seven changes he has made to his team.
The Crusaders are settled and have the sort of players you would go to war with in Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, Kieran Read, Sam Whitelock, Owen Franks, Corey Flynn, Wyatt Crockett, Luke Romano and Andy Ellis.
The biggest battle for the Chiefs will be up front, where the Crusaders pack are playing with the sort of cohesion and ferocity that has been the trademark of the All Blacks. The front-foot ball is bound to be used well by the masterful Carter, who has the luxury of potent attacking forces outside him in Israel Dagg, Tom Marshall and Ryan Crotty.
The Chiefs will be dangerous in broken play, but the Crusaders’ lineout and territorial game is also amongst the best, and the patience and composure of the Cantabrians means the mistakes are few and far between.
Ironically, the most high-stakes game of the weekend will involve the SuperRugby team that finished last as the Southern Kings host the Lions in Port Elizabeth in the first of two promotion/relegation matches tonight.
They are playing ostensibly for the right to be the country’s fifth SuperRugby franchise, but in fact they are basically playing for the survival of their professional status.
Without the security of a long-term, guaranteed presence in SuperRugby, neither the Kings nor the Lions have been able to attract decent sponsorship or sign marquee players and the harsh economic times means both franchises are battling to stay afloat.
The Kings, who are without the injured Luke Watson and Andries Strauss, have the conditioning of being exposed to the pace and intensity of SuperRugby for the last five months and the backing of one of the best crowds in the competition.
The Lions have been bolstered by the return of lock Franco van der Merwe, flyhalf Elton Jantjies and hooker Martin Bezuidenhout from loan deals to the Sharks and Stormers, and will be fresher and desperately hungry after looking in from the outside all year.
With Springbok tourist JC Janse van Rensburg anchoring the front row, they should be able to match the Kings in the set-pieces and much will depend on how Jantjies responds to being back with his former colleagues.
The Kings have a tenacious defence which Jantjies will need to unlock, and in the boot of Demetri Catrakilis and the rolling maul, they have two of the most efficient points-gathering mechanisms in the competition.
There is a fine line between desperation and anxiety, and the team making the least mistakes is bound to win in Port Elizabeth.
*Statistics courtesy of Opta and allblacks.com – http://files.allblacks.com/kickoff/opta/ISR-Season-Review-Opta.pdf
Bulls: Zane Kirchner, Akona Ndungane, JJ Engelbrecht, Jan Serfontein, Bjorn Basson, Morné Steyn, Francois Hougaard, Dewald Potgieter, Jacques Potgieter, Deon Stegmann, Grant Hattingh, Flip van der Merwe, Werner Kruger, Chiliboy Ralepelle, Dean Greyling. Replacements – Callie Visagie, Frik Kirsten, Morné Mellett, Paul Willemse, Jono Ross, Jano Vermaak, Jürgen Visser.
Brumbies: Jesse Mogg, Henry Speight, Tevita Kuridrani, Christian Lealiifano, Clyde Rathbone, Matt Toomua, Nic White, Ben Mowen, George Smith, Peter Kimlin, Scott Fardy, Sam Carter, Ben Alexander, Stephen Moore, Scott Sio. Replacements – Siliva Siliva, Ruan Smith, Fotu Auelua, Colby Faingaa, Ian Prior, Andrew Smith, Joseph Tomane.
Southern Kings: SP Marais, Hadleigh Parkes, Ronnie Cooke, Shane Gates, Marcello Sampson, Demetri Catrakilis, Shaun Venter, Jacques Engelbrecht, Wimpie van der Walt, Cornell du Preez, Darron Nell, David Bulbring, Kevin Buys, Bandise Maku, Schalk Ferreira. Replacements – Charl du Plessis, Hannes Franklin, Steven Sykes, Devin Oosthuizen, Nicolas Vergallo, George Whitehead, Waylon Murray.
Lions: Ruan Combrink, Antony Volmink, Stokkies Hanekom, Dylan des Fountain, Deon van Rensburg, Elton Jantjies, Michael Bondesio, Warren Whiteley, Derick Minnie, Jaco Kriel, Franco van der Merwe, Hendrik Roodt, Julian Redelinghuys, Martin Bezuidenhout, JC Janse van Rensburg. Replacements – Robbie Coetzee, Martin Dreyer, Willie Britz, Warwick Tecklenburg, Ross Cronjé, Marnitz Boshoff, Chrysander Botha.