The Bulls are already without the services of Springboks due to injury, but such is their confidence at the top of the South African Conference that they have put another three on the bench for their Vodacom SuperRugby match against the Southern Kings at Loftus Versfeld on Saturday, writes KEN BORLAND.
Chief among the three on the bench is flyhalf Morne Steyn, the provider of most of their points, tactical direction and territorial dominance, who finally gets a break.
Louis Fouche will start at flyhalf, while lock Juandre Kruger and centre JJ Engelbrecht are also on the bench. Former Lions star Grant Hattingh will start in the number five jersey, while resting Engelbrecht has allowed coach Frans Ludeke to try Jan Serfontein at outside centre, which could also have interesting implications for the Springboks as well.
The Bulls will be grateful for the seven-match winning streak that has given them an eight-point lead in the South African Conference and, even with Jano Vermaak, Arno Botha and captain Pierre Spies being ruled out due to injury during the June internationals, they still have 13 Springboks in their starting line-up and nobody really expects them to lose to the Kings at their Loftus Versfeld fortress. And even if they do, they will still be sitting pretty.
Their chief rivals, the Cheetahs, have no such liberties and they simply have to win to keep their playoff hopes alive when they travel to Cape Town to take on a Stormers side that will have been given licence to express themselves with their competition hopes all but over.
The Cheetahs have rushed all their Springbok squad members back into action, but the good news for them is that Robert Ebersohn, Lappies Labuschagne and Lourens Adriaanse saw no actual on-field action and will therefore be rested and refreshed, while Piet van Zyl, Coenie Oosthuizen and Trevor Nyakane had little game time.
Even without Springbok captain Jean de Villiers, who has finally succumbed to injury, the Stormers still boast high-profile players such as Bryan Habana, Eben Etzebeth and Siya Kolisi and there is nothing they would like more than to cut the Cheetahs down to size.
The Cheetahs snatched victory over the Stormers in Bloemfontein back in April with an 82nd-minute penalty by Burton Francis and since then the Stormers’ fortunes have nosedived to the extent that they are eleventh on the overall log.
But the Cheetahs have only won once before at Newlands and have won just three of their 10 SuperRugby meetings with the Stormers overall, so the home side has plenty of pride to play for.
On the theme of being cut down to size, the Sharks return to SuperRugby action this weekend with a new coach after their incoming CEO wielded the axe in dramatic fashion.
How the players respond to all the uncertainty stemming from John Smit’s arrival and the unceremonious departure of former CEO Brian van Zyl and coach John Plumtree remains to be seen as they tackle the Blues, who are still fighting for a playoff place.
Former assistant coach Grant Bashford has temporarily taken the reins of the Sharks.
For all the teams, however, there is the question of how the three-week break has affected them. Will their motors splutter back to life in clouds of smoke and not much acceleration, or will they return smoothly to the track and quickly find fifth gear?
For the Bulls and Cheetahs, there is crucial momentum to be maintained, but for the Sharks and Stormers, there is the possibility of a fresh start and a much better finish to the competition than the way they began.
The Southern Kings, meanwhile, are almost guaranteed to finish last in the South African Conference despite all their effort and determination and they need to make important decisions about the balance between resting key players and having them ready for the playoff / relegation series against the Lions.
There is bound to be more drama before the end of the tournament, with the Allister Coetzee household no doubt in a state of some trepidation as many Stormers fans have been calling for his head. And the board might just have been emboldened by the Sharks’ move to change coach.
Coetzee’s best insurance of course is to win and Newlands will host the pick of the weekend’s fixtures as a quality side looking for redemption faces the new contenders, desperate for victory and with in-form future stars in their ranks.
The Sharks (v Blues, Saturday 14:50): Riaan Viljoen, Odwa Ndungane, Louis Ludik, Butch James, Lwazi Mvovo, Pat Lambie, Charl McLeod, Keegan Daniel, Willem Alberts, Marcell Coetzee, Franco van der Merwe, Edwin Hewitt, Jannie du Plessis, Kyle Cooper, Tendai Mtawarira. Replacements – Bismarck du Plessis, Danie Mienie/Wiehahn Herbst, Jandré Marais, Jean Deysel, Jacques Botes, Cobus Reinach, Jaco van Tonder.
Bulls (v Southern Kings, Saturday 17:05): Zane Kirchner, Akona Ndungane, Jan Serfontein, Wynand Olivier, Bjorn Basson, Louis Fouché, Francois Hougaard, Dewald Potgieter, Jacques Potgieter, Deon Stegmann, Grant Hattingh, Flip van der Merwe, Werner Kruger, Chiliboy Ralepelle, Dean Greyling. Replacements – Willie Wepener, Frik Kirsten, Juandré Kruger, Jono Ross, Rudy Paige, Morné Steyn, JJ Engelbrecht.
Southern Kings (v Bulls, Saturday 17:05): SP Marais, Michael Killian, Ronnie Cooke, Andries Strauss, 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 – Grant Kemp, Hannes Franklin, Rynier Bernardo, Devin Oosthuizen, Nicolas Vergallo, George Whitehead, Shane Gates.
Stormers (v Cheetahs, Saturday 19:15): Joe Pietersen, Gio Aplon, Juan de Jongh, Damian de Allende, Bryan Habana, Elton Jantjies, Louis Schreuder, Nizaam Carr, Deon Fourie, Siya Kolisi, De Kock Steenkamp, Eben Etzebeth, Brok Harris, Tiaan Liebenberg, Steven Kitshoff. Replacements – Scarra Ntubeni, Ross Geldenhuys, Gerbrandt Grobler, Don Armand, Dewaldt Duvenage, Gary van Aswegen, Gerhard van den Heever.
Cheetahs (v Stormers, Saturday 19:15): Hennie Daniller, Willie le Roux, Johann Sadie, Robert Ebersohn, Raymond Rhule, Riaan Smit, Piet van Zyl, Philip van der Walt, Lappies Labuschagné, Heinrich Brüssow, Ligtoring Landman, Lood de Jager, Lourens Adriaanse, Adriaan Strauss, Coenie Oosthuizen. Replacements – Ryno Barnes, Trevor Nyakane, Waltie Vermeulen, Boom Prinsloo, Sarel Pretorius, Elgar Watts, Howard Mnisi.
Other fixtures: Chiefs v Hurricanes (Friday 9:35); Highlanders v Crusaders (Saturday 9:35). DM