Super Rugby Match Preview
Saturday 3rd March 2018
Bulls vs Lions
Venue: Loftus Versveld, Pretoria
Kickoff: 17h15 Local Time, 15h15 GMT, 17h15 SA Time
Referee: Marius van der Westhuizen (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Rasta Rasivhenge (South Africa), Stephan Geldenhuys (South Africa)
TMO: Christie du Preez (South Africa)
The Clash in The Hood
Just 75km separates Ellis Park Stadium from Loftus Versveld Stadium in the Gauteng province of South Africa. Home to the Lions and the Bulls respectively, the two venues are somewhat different in atmosphere. These two teams are almost kissing cousins in so many ways. Two teams from the smallest province in the country, geographically; from cities that have almost blended together as suburban sprawl has edged closer and closer each year. Already there are tendrils of industrial areas and dormitory suburbs that are touching.
Many of the residents of both cities already commute to work in the “other” city.
The two franchises are such close neighbours that it is surprising that they were not merged into a single Super team way back at the inception of the competition. Politics separated them, with the then head honcho of South African and Lions rugby, Louis Luyt, wanting little or nothing to do with the administrators of the Northern Transvaal Union, home of the Bulls, and frequent vigorous opponents of Louis Luyt in the rugby boardrooms. Luyt, somewhat illogically, chose to merge his Transvaal team with the Free State, Northern Free State, and Griqua teams, to form the combined Cats. That union did not last long and soon separated into the more logical Lions and Cheetahs.
And now we have the Lions and the Bulls as close neighbours, but bitter rivals.
The separation between the unions, now franchises, is evidenced by the contrasting fortunes of the two, as well as the hugely different styles of rugby that they play.
When one franchise was winning at Super Rugby, the other was amongst the bottom-feeders of the competition, first the Bulls were winning and the Lions suffered the ignominy of being relegated from the competition; and then the fortunes reversed, with the Lions gaining the upper hand and the Bulls feeding off scraps at the bottom of the pond.
2018 has seen much talk about the resurgence of the Bulls. Under new coach John Mitchell, they are talking about embracing a new style of rugby, playing a modern, open, fast running game. We are told they will challenge the Lions domination of South African Super Rugby, sooner rather than later.
The Lions, in contrast, have simply continued where they left off last year. Albeit under a new head coach as Johan Ackermann succumbed to the lure of British Sterling, to be replaced by his long-time assistant Swys de Bruin. De Bruin is well versed in the Lions style of rugby and is not looking to change anything, why should he? This is a winning outfit, with a winning style, and plenty of supporters.
Last weekend saw the Bulls beat opposition from outside South Africa for the first time since 2015. It was also the first time they have won their opening game of the Super Rugby season since 2013. And they knocked over one of the better New Zealand outfits too, the Hurricanes!
Many of their supporters believe.
Some say the team believes too.
I am not sure whether this first swallow indicates that a Bulls’ summer has arrived?
There is some history to the impending clash.
Mitchell was head coach of the Lions until 2012. He was fired (resigned) after the team were relegated from Super Rugby in 2012. He will undoubtedly be wanting a modicum of revenge against his previous employers.
The Bulls have named an unchanged team to the one that beat the Hurricanes last weekend.
The Lions have made four changes to their starting team for this game. Kwagga Smith is on compassionate leave, and is replaced by Cyle Brink. In an interesting move, Franco Mostert switches from lock to flank and ex-Bull Marvin Orie is recalled starting the game at lock.
In the only change amongst the backs, Rohan Janse van Rensburg replaces Harold Vorster who drops to the bench.
The Lions have set the standard for entertaining, winning rugby in South Africa.
They play a game based keeping the ball in hand, off quick front-foot ball, moving it into the midfield and then out wide. They play the game based on a powerhouse pack that at the very least achieves parity in the set pieces and gains a modicum of ascendancy in the midfield clashes.
The Lions use midfield pods of forwards as an alternative, rather than a default option for recycled ball and playing off the set pieces. Even when the midfield forwards are used, the intent is always there to get the ball to the runners in the back division rather than trundling up the middle for phase after phase of boring crashball and dodgem car rugby.
So far in 2018 it all looks pretty much the same as in the previous two years. A bit ring rusty, perhaps, but the game plan and style are still intact. Giving them back-to-back victories over the Sharks and the Jaguares.
The Bulls have spent the last couple of years playing a game in stark contrast to that of the Lions. It has been a mind-numbing repetition of forward pod after forward pod trundling up the middle, going to ground, recycling the ball, and repeating the process. On those occasions that the ball has been given to the backs it has either been kick-and-chase, or a ball out to a specialist crashball running centre, the likes of Jan Serfontein, Burger Odendaal, and Jessie Kriel, who promptly took the ball back into the crush of forwards.
The entire game plan was built on the presupposition that the Bulls forwards would dominate the opposition and clatter over them in the collisions. This was the plan that worked so well when they were winning the Super Rugby trophy and playing in the finals… It was also the plan when they had one of the best packs of forwards in the competition, with the immense presence of men like Bakkies Botha, Victor Matfield, Anton Leonard, and Gary Botha. They had the forwards that could dominate..
Sadly, they no longer have that monstrous pack. In recent years their forwards have looked middling and mediocre compared to the powerhouses of the past.
However, there is a new sheriff in town. John Mitchell has taken the reins, and the Bulls faithful (those few that still remain) firmly believe that he will turn the corner for their team. If all else fails he will force the Bulls around that corner, whether they like it or not.
One significant, visible, change has been the improvement in the Bulls early season fitness levels. In the past they have always faded badly in the latter third of every early season game. This was not visible a week ago against the Hurricanes.
How much of the 80-minute effort was based on core fitness and how much was drawn from the adrenaline rush of leading the Hurricanes remains to be seen.
From my perspective, the jury is still hearing evidence in this case, we have no way of saying what the impact of John Mitchell will be in the medium to long term.
No doubt, the Bulls go into this Super Rugby game against the Lions in a better headspace than they have been in many years. That win against the Hurricanes might have been just 21 over 19, but it is the victory the Bulls needed desperately after a dire 2017.
The Lions, in contrast, have inhabited that good space for the last three years. They know they can win, they know how to win, and they have the core group of very experienced campaigners that know just how to pull the youngsters in the team along when the going gets tough.
This is one of the big local derbies that Super Rugby contrives to cough up with fixture lists that feature an annual double round against your own conference’s fellow travellers. It will be a tough one, again. A tough, close game is coming at us.
Add the history between the two cities and teams, and you will know that there is going to be plenty of needle too.
And in such games, it is the experience, the confidence, and the mojo of a team that carries them to the win. This Lions outfit has the bulk of the team which has taken them to two Super Rugby finals in the past two seasons, and that is likely to be the real difference between the two teams.
The Lions know how to win, and they know how to grind it out if they have to. I have the Lions to win by 12 points.
Bulls: 15 Divan Rossouw, 14 Travis Ismaiel, 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 Burger Odendaal (captain), 11 Johnny Kotze, 10 Handré Pollard, 9 Andre Warner, 8 Hanro Liebenberg, 7 Thembelani Bholi, 6 Roelof Smit, 5 Lodewyk de Jager, 4 Rudolph Snyman, 3 Frans van Wyk, 2 Jaco Visagie, 1 Pierre Schoeman
Replacements: 16 Adriaan Strauss, 17 Lizo Gqoboka, 18 Conraad van Vuuren, 19 Nic de Jager, 20 Marco van Staden, 21 Embrose Papier, 22 Marnitz Boshoff, 23 Duncan Matthews
Lions: 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Sylvian Mahuza, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Rohan Janse van Rensburg, 11 Aphiwe Dyantyi, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Ross Cronje, 8 Warren Whiteley (c), 7 Francois Mostert, 6 Cyle Brink, 5 Marvin Orie, 4 Andries Ferreira, 3 Ruan Dreyer, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Jacques Van Rooyen
Replacements: 16 Robbie Coetzee, 17 Dylan Smith, 18 Jacobus Adriaanse, 19 Lourens Erasmus, 20 Marnus Schoeman, 21 Marco Jansen Van Vuren, 22 Harold Voster, 23 Madosh Tambwe