The Bullring’s gonna rock

The Absa Currie Cup semi-final promises to be a throwback to the days when the rivalry between the Vodacom Bulls and Vodacom Western Province was at it’s zenith.

Province are the only team to have beaten the Bulls home and away this season, but the signs for the Cape-outfit leading into this match look ominous. While the the Bulls started the season inconsistently, they have been irrepressible recently.

Permutations about who needs to beat who, and the amount of bonus points teams require to overhaul the next one has given way to a desire for one thing: victory.

Keo.co.za examines three key battles that could determine the result of the Loftus showdown as well as the recent results between the sides.

THREE’S A CROWD

The back three battle will be a fascinating and decisive facet of play. Province received a timely boost ahead of the Loftus clash with the return of the mercurial Gio Aplon. The man from Hawston has been the form fullback of the competition and was the catalyst of an impressive victory over the Bulls at Newlands in the second round fixture, scoring twice and creating a plethora of scoring opportunities for teammates. His penchant for counter attacking play will be complemented by the attacking instincts of wingers Joe Pietersen and Sereli Naquelevuki, who has announced his arrival on the domestic scene with seven tries in as many matches.

The Bulls have been no less impressive in this department but don’t possess the same threat on the counterattack as their ssouthern rivals do. In Johan Roets, Akona Ndungane and Marius Delport they have a trio that are sure to chase Derick Hougaard’s tactical punts all day, seeking to pressure the player who recovers the ball, but they just don’t have the same element of unpredictability of the Province back three. Defensively they will be sound as well, but Province edge this department.

THE INSIDE CONNECTION

Midweek speculation suggested that Werner Greeff would play at flyhalf to sure up the 10\12 channel defensively. A major reason for this is the resurgent form of Dries Scholtz. The 105kg centre devastated Williem de Waal and Hendrik Meyer at Loftus a week ago and it is feared that he might produce a repeat performance against the perceived defensive frailties of Naas Olivier. Greeff may yet run out in the No. 10 shirt and Scholtz may be relegated to the wood should Wynand Olivier be declared fit, but irrespective of who plays at flyhalf and inside centre, the performance of the individuals in those positions will be crucial.

Derick Hougaard’s boot is the obvious threat but ‘Loftus’ Liefling’s’ role in getting the Bulls backs away has gone unnoticed. The back division has been in outstanding try scoring form, putting five past the Sharks and Cheetahs in recent matches. Olivier and Scholtz will add very different dimensions to the inside centre berth. While the former strikes with the rapier, preferring to run into space, creating the overlap for his outside backs, the latter bludgeons his opponents into submission, and more often than not commits numerous defenders to the tackle, crafting gaps in the defensive line.

For all their attacking promise, the Province 10/12 combination is a new one and this could be a disadvantage. Greeff returned from a long injury layoff with an impressive showing against Griquas last week, but the Bulls at Loftus is a significantly harder challenge. Olivier’s overall game has suffered as a result of his erratic goalkicking form but it is undeniable that the 24-year-old is a classy pivot. Very much a confidence player, when he brings his kicking game and combines it with a solid running game he can be superb.

GROUND ZERO

Loose forwards have become rugby’s rockstars. Not a game goes by without pundits speculating about who will dominate the back row battle. They though are the heartbeat of a team and their contribution is tantamount to success.

The loss of Pedrie Wannenberg will be significant. Bulls assistant coach Mike Bayly hailed his versatility recently, explaining that while his primary threat lies in his loose play with ball-in-hand, their research has shown that he effects only one or two less turnovers in a match than specialists openside flankers do. In Derick Kuün the Bulls have a competent replacement capable causing havoc at ruck time, but his aptitude for the fetchers role will will be tested by Luke Watson and co. Hilton Lobberts will feel justifiably disappointed at being snubbed but Pote Human’s inclusion of Kuün is a clear indication that he will seek to nullify the influence of the Province trio at the breakdown. The hard running duo of Danie Rossouw and Pierre Spies were the bane of the Cheetahs last week and Province can expect more of the same from them.

While Watson’s press has cooled his performances are still white hot. Not only does he remain the premier openside flank in South Africa, but is also the country’s fourth top try scorer (8 tries), suggesting the sometimes brash, always overtly confident 22-year-old poses a multidimensional threat to the Bulls.

Robbie Diack returns to the back of the scrum, and his ball-skills, mobility and physical presence will be an asset to his side. The 20-year-old will be looking to rekindle the form he had before a stomach bug flattened him.

Gerrie Britz’s inclusion at the expense of the impressive Justin Melck is the biggest surprise. This will either be a masterstroke in tactical awareness by Kobus van der Merwe or an absolute flop. Britz played blindside flank in the Springboks 2004 Tri-Nations winning campaign, but has been primarily used as a lock. He was outstanding in 2004, but we’ll have to wait to see how effective he’ll be in his return to the position.

This one is too close to call. Both teams have outstanding individuals in the back row, and the battle will be intriguing.

HISTORY

The teams have been dead even since 2000. Eleven games have been played with WP winning five and the Bulls five, with one draw. Three of WP’s have won three of the five at Loftus, the latest coming this season, breaking the Bulls four game winning streak over them.

2006: WP won 23-12 (CapeTown)
WP won 11-15 (Pretoria)

2005: Bulls won 39-3 (Pretoria)
Bulls won 18-10 (Pretoria)

2004: Draw 36-36 (Pretoria)
Bulls won 20-7 (Cape Town)

2003: Bulls won 64-29 (Pretoria)
WP won 63-26 (Cape Town)

2002: Bulls won 35-26 (Pretoria)

2001: WP won 22-19 (Pretoria)

2000: WP won 43-30 (Cape Town)

TEAMS

Vodacom Blue Bulls’ team: 15. Johan Roets 14. Akona Ndungane 13. JP Nel 12. Wynand Olivier/Dries Scholtz 11. Marius Delport 10. Derick Hougaard 9. Heini Adams 8. Pierre Spies 7. Derick Kuün 6. Danie Rossouw 5. Francois van Schouwenburg 4. Adriaan Fondse 3. Rayno Gerber 2. Gary Botha (c) 1. Jaco Engels Reserves: 16. Adriaan Strauss 17. Danie Thiart 18. Hottie Louw 19. Hilton Lobberts 20. Neil Powell 21 Morné Steyn 22. Stefan Basson

WP: 15 Gio Aplon, 14 Sireli Naqelevuki, 13 Corne Uys, 12 Werner Greeff, 11 Joe Pietersen, 10 Naas Olivier, 9 Bolla Conradie, 8 Robbie Diack, 7 Gerrie Britz, 6 Luke Watson (c), 5 Ross Skeate, 4 Francois van der Merwe, 3 Brok Harris, 2 Tiaan Liebenberg, 1 JD Moller. Replacements: 16 Huia Edmonds, 17 Schalk Ferreira, 18 Andries Bekker, 19 Justin Melck, 20 Paul Delport, 21 Sarel Potgieter, 22 Egon Seconds.

By Ryan Vrede