Vodacom Bulls must start well against DHL Stormers
The latest edition of the Vodacom Super Rugby competition kicks off in Johannesburg on Friday where the Emirates Lions will take on the visiting Hurricanes from New Zealand, but most attention should be on Durban and Pretoria come Saturday.
Local derbies tend to get the juices flowing in the early stages of the rugby year and with two high-calibre clashes between the Cell C Sharks and Toyota Cheetahs and Vodacom Bulls and DHL Stormers respectively, a massive opening Saturday awaits.
This year will again see five South African franchises in action and all will be keen to add their names to the coveted title. The Vodacom Bulls (2007, 2009, and 2010) are the only South African side who has managed to win this sought-after crown, played by the best franchise teams from SA, New Zealand and Australia.
The North versus South derbies remain some the most anticipated clashes on the local Vodacom Super Rugby calendar and the late Saturday clash between the Vodacom Bulls and the visiting DHL Stormers will be no different.
The Stormers will be well aware of past visits to Loftus Versfeld and the stranglehold the Bulls have on them at this venue. The home side has lost only one of their last 19 matches at home and in 2014 they were unbeaten in Pretoria. The Stormers lost seven of eight away last year and lost their opening matches in 2013 and 2014.
That said, the visitors will be boosted by the fact that they won last year's Absa Currie Cup in exciting fashion, playing a different kind of rugby than in Super Rugby, where they only scored 18.1 points per match, the lowest in the competition.
The Stormers will back their defence to keep their try-line intact and they could well succeed in doing so if the Bulls do not cure their try-scoring blues. The home side only scored 1.8 tries per match in 2014, fewer than any other team.
Victor Matfield, the most experienced South African in the competition (138 matches) and most experienced captain ever (82), will be looking at forcing the visitors into a forward-dominated game.
The Bulls had the best line-out rate in 2014 (91%) and the Stormers just 78%, so they will look to dominate that phase again. The visitors also face another potential obstacle in flyhalf Handrè Pollard, who kicked 26 out of 28 shots (93%) at goal last year, the best rate of the season.
Vodacom Bulls coach Frans Ludeke included all three off-season recruits, former Toyota Cheetahs hooker, Adriaan Strauss, prop Trevor Nyakane and flanker Lappies Labuschagne in the starting line-up. Ludeke also included Arno Botha at number eight, the first time the loose forward will play Super Rugby since June 1st, 2013.
Ludeke, who will be in charge of the team for an eight consecutive season, expressed his excitement with kick-off a couple of days away.
“We have prepared well for this season, but one will only really know how you shape up once the tournament is underway. I believe we have a solid squad with good depth this year and players suited to the way we want to execute our style of play,” Ludeke said.
Stormers coach Allister Coetzee named three Springboks and six DHL Stormers debutants in the match day squad. Wings Johnny Kotze and Dillyn Leyds and tighthead prop Vincent Koch are the new faces in the run-on side, with the new faces on the bench being Bongi Mbonambi (former Bulls hooker), tighthead prop Wilco Louw and outside back Huw Jones.
New skipper Duane Vermeulen will lead the team from the No.8 position in a match which Coetzee has described as a "tough assignment" and a "great challenge".
"We're looking forward to getting our campaign underway after a good pre-season and, as everyone knows, there's no greater challenge than facing the Bulls at Loftus Versfeld - be it your first game or your last game of the season. It is (a tough assignment), but it's been done before."
The teams are:
Vodacom Bulls: Jurgen Visser, Bjorn Basson, JJ Engelbrecht, Jan Serfontein, Francois Hougaard, Handrè Pollard, Piet van Zyl, Arno Botha, Lappies Labuschagne, Deon Stegmann, Victor Matfield (c), Jacques du Plessis, Werner Kruger, Adriaan Strauss, Trevor Nyakane. Replacements: Callie Visagie, Mornè Mellet, Dayan van der Westhuizen/Neethling Fouchè, Grant Hattingh, Pierre Spies, Rudy Paige, Jacques-Louis Potgieter, Jesse Kriel.
DHL Stormers: Cheslin Kolbe, Johnny Kotze, Juan de Jongh, Damian de Allende, Dillyn Leyds, Demetri Catrakilis, Nic Groom, Duane Vermeulen (c), Michael Rhodes, Rynhardt Elstadt, Ruan Botha, Jean Kleyn, Vincent Koch, Scarra Ntubeni, Steven Kitshoff. Replacements: Bongi Mbonambi, Oli Kebble, Wilco Louw, Jurie van Vuuren, Nizaam Carr, Louis Schreuder, Kurt Coleman, Huw Jones
Vital statistics (since 1998):
Played 22 Vodacom Bulls won 9; DHL Stormers won 12; one draw
Vodacom Bulls points scored: 502
DHL Stormers points scored: 476
Vodacom Bulls tries scored: 47
DHL Stormers tries scored: 44
Average score: 23-22 to the Vodacom Bulls
Date: Saturday, 14 February
SA Time: 19h10
Venue: Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria
Referee: Jaco Peyper (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Jaco van Heerden (South Africa), Stephan Geldenhuys (South Africa)
Television match officials: Johan Greeff (South Africa)