The Southern Kings ensured on their amazingly successful overseas tour that the rest of South Africa will now take them seriously in SuperRugby and that is exactly the attitude the Bulls have been stressing as they head to Port Elizabeth for Saturday’s massive encounter.
The Kings will, of course, have to battle travel fatigue having arrived back from Australia, where they drew with the Brumbies and beat the Force in their last two outings, only this week, but that will be offset by the tremendous lift a capacity crowd at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium will give them.
While the Kings may only have four Springboks, including returning skipper Luke Watson, to the 13 of the Bulls, that’s not what visiting coach Frans Ludeke will be focusing on: Confidence and momentum will be far more important than previous history written on paper.
“I called it at the start of the season that the Kings would not be pushovers and I know their coaches well. They are quality and have great structures. Their achievements are what you want for SA rugby – they put pressure on the overseas sides.
“But we’re looking forward to the contest. It is sold out and that makes it extra special. It will bring the best out of our players on the night and we like that sort of challenge,” Ludeke said this week.
With the Kings having adjusted well to the pace of SuperRugby, especially in defence, the match is likely to be played at Test match intensity and that will suit the Bulls, simply because they have more experience of those sorts of clashes and they have players like Morné Steyn who love to grind out a win.
The Bulls will no doubt stick to the same percentages-based strategy that saw them return to winning ways last weekend against the Cheetahs, but they do have the attacking players to capitalise if the Kings make mistakes under pressure. Jan Serfontein made a highly encouraging first SuperRugby start at inside centre last weekend, while JJ Engelbrecht, Akona Ndungane and Lionel Mapoe provide plenty of pace and finishing ability.
The Kings may be tempted to go all-out attack against the Bulls, but their defence has been so good recently that all they need is a couple of dropped balls to pile pressure on the home side.
For the Bulls, it will be all about making a good start to reduce the amount of help the Kings get from the crowd. They don’t want to be chasing the game and nobody wants to be the first South African team to lose to the Kings, which just increases the pressure if they fall behind.
For the Kings, holding on to the ball for longer periods will be crucial because the Bulls game is all about suffocating the opposition and forcing mistakes. That’s hard to do when you’re the team doing the defending.
In Durban, there could be a major shuffling of the Conference standings if the Sharks lose to the Cheetahs.
The Sharks have won five of their seven matches and are third on the overall log, so there’s certainly no crisis at King’s Park, but they are about to embark on a tough overseas tour and they lost last weekend to the Stormers. So they really don’t want to go on tour on the back of two straight defeats and coach John Plumtree, mindful that his team haven’t really clicked yet this season (apart from massacring the hapless Rebels), has made key changes to his line-up.
Springboks Jannie du Plessis, Ryan Kankowski and Francois Steyn have been part of the furniture at the Sharks, but that could be changing based on the starting line-up for this weekend’s game.
Wiehahn Herbst’s impact at tighthead prop has seen Du Plessis relegated to the bench, with Steyn also dropping down to the substitutes and Riaan Viljoen starting at fullback. Kankowski has disappeared from the match-day 22 completely.
Plumtree said that both Steyn (France) and Kankowski (Japan) were battling to adapt to the greater pace and intensity of SuperRugby after stints overseas.
“Ryan’s not in good form at the moment. We are putting a plan in place for him going forward. I think that he’s still feeling the effects of the Japanese season and just hasn’t come right. Mentally he’s a bit stale, so it’s frustrating for him because he is trying his best but it’s just not working.
“It’s alarming for me because he’s one of our better players, but at the end of the day there are standards and there are consequences for not reaching those standards.”
Plumtree is also concerned over Steyn’s lack of fitness and match sharpness.
“As I said at the start of the season, Frans was coming back from an injury and wasn’t in great condition. So he’s battling to get back to his best. We’ve had long talks and I’m going to be patient with him, but he’s got to be patient as well. We’ll get there, it’s just going to take some time. He was out of South Africa for a while, so he’s just got to rediscover his form and the conditioning that’s necessary for SuperRugby,” Plumtree said.
The cold front that has been causing deluges in the Cape is expected to reach KwaZulu-Natal at the weekend and that could reduce the match to a tighter affair, with the exciting Cheetahs backline struggling to get into the match.
The Sharks pack was on the back foot last weekend against the Stormers, however, and Plumtree will hope the return of the confrontational Jean Deysel to the number seven jersey will provide the physicality and abrasiveness that was missing at Newlands.
Cheetahs coach Naka Drotske was considering changes after the Bulls loss and eight straight games for his bye-less team, but in the end made just one injury-enforced replacement, Coenie Oosthuizen coming in for the greatly-improved Trevor Nyakane at loosehead prop.
The Cheetahs used to be the bogey team for the Sharks, but that was a long time ago, with the Natalians winning the last five games since February 2010.
But having removed the “curse”, the Sharks know they will need to be at their best if they are not to suffer a crucial defeat just before their daunting overseas tour. Already missing a dozen players through injury, they could also lose first place in the Conference to either the Cheetahs or Bulls.
There could also be motion at the top of the overall standings, with the first-placed Brumbies visiting the Reds in Brisbane on Saturday.
It’s an enthralling prospect, with the Reds pitting their desire to move the ball against a Brumbies team that leans heavily on South African tactics, through former Springbok coach Jake White.
Australian media are reporting that the future destination of the Wallabies coaching job could depend on the outcome of the match, with White pitting his wits against Ewen McKenzie.
But the talents of Will Genia, Digby Ioane, Quade Cooper and James Horwill will be even more valuable for the Reds, while the Brumbies have the attacking skills of Henry Speight and Jesse Mogg, two excellent game-managers in Christian Lealiifano and Matt Toomua, and plenty of forward grunt in Fotu Auelua, Ben Mowen, Peter Kimlin, Dan Palmer, Stephen Moore and Ben Alexander.
McKenzie has already flagged the efforts of the Brumbies at the breakdown as being largely illegal, which adds spice to the obviously crucial contest between opensiders George Smith, whose contract extension to stay with the Brumbies until the end of the season was confirmed on Thursday, and Reds tyro Liam Gill. DM
The Sharks (v Cheetahs, Saturday 17:05): Riaan Viljoen, Sean Robinson, Paul Jordaan, Meyer Bosman, Odwa Ndungane, Pat Lambie, Cobus Reinach, Keegan Daniel, Jean Deysel, Marcell Coetzee, Franco van der Merwe, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Wiehahn Herbst, Kyle Cooper, Tendai Mtawarira. Replacements: Craig Burden, Jannie du Plessis, Anton Bresler, Lubabalo Mtembu, Charl McLeod, Frans Steyn, Andries Coetzee.
Cheetahs (v Sharks, Saturday 17:05): Hennie Daniller, Willie le Roux, Johann Sadie, Robert Ebersohn, Raymond Rhule, Burton Francis, Piet van Zyl, Phillip van der Walt, Lappies Labuschagne, Heinrich Brüssow, Francois Uys, Lood de Jager, Lourens Adriaanse, Adriaan Strauss, Coenie Oosthuizen. Replacements: Ryno Barnes, Caylib Oosthuizen, Ligtoring Landman, Frans Viljoen, Tewis de Bruyn, Francois Brummer, Ryno Benjamin.
Southern Kings (v Bulls, Saturday 19:10): George Whitehead, Sergeal Petersen, Waylon Murray, Andries Strauss, Ronnie Cooke, Demetri Catrakilis, Shaun Venter; Luke Watson, Wimpie van der Walt, Cornell du Preez, David Bulbring, Steven Sykes, Kevin Buys, Bandise Maku, Schalk Ferreira. Replacements: Hannes Franklin, Grant Kemp, Rynier Bernardo, Jacques Engelbrecht, Nicolas Vergallo, Marcello Sampson, Siviwe Soyzwapi.
Bulls (v Southern Kings, Saturday 19:10): Jürgen Visser, Akona Ndungane, JJ Engelbrecht, Jan Serfontein, Lionel Mapoe, Morné Steyn, Jano Vermaak, Pierre Spies, Arno Botha, Deon Stegmann, Juandré Kruger, Flip van der Merwe, Frik Kirsten, Chiliboy Ralepelle, Morné Mellet. Replacements: Callie Visagie, Werner Kruger, Paul Willemse, Jacques Potgieter, Rudy Paige, Louis Fouchè, Bjorn Basson.
Other fixtures: Hurricanes v Force (Friday 9:35); Waratahs v Chiefs (Friday 11:40); Crusaders v Highlanders (Saturday 9:35); Reds v Brumbies (Saturday 11:40).
Byes: Stormers, Blues, Rebels.