Liefling’s Lions lifeline

Derick Hougaard could get an unexpected recall to the Bulls run-on side to face the Lions as a result of JP Nel’s suspension.

The Bulls flyhalf was dropped for last weekend’s defeat to the Sharks after two indifferent performances against the Stormers and Crusaders. Steyn’s attacking inclination saw the Bulls’ backline play improve markedly at Loftus, and he looked set to hold onto the pivot berth for the foreseeable future despite the Bulls insisting that his inclusion was in line with their rotation policy.

However, Nel’s suspension, and the fact that back-up outside centre Marius Delport is injured, leaves the Bulls with some reshuffling to do. They have SA U19 stars Stefan Watermeyer and Stephan Dippenaar in the wings, but are unlikely to utilise them considering their desperation to arrest their slide.

The wholly more likely scenario is that Steyn will shift to inside centre, with Wynand Olivier on his outside. In this regard Nel’s suspension may not be the worst thing for a struggling backline.

There is a widely held view that Olivier is better suited to outside centre given the position offers him more space and time to operate. He lacks the creativity and coolness under pressure (amongst other skills) needed by world class 12s, and if given an extended run, outside centre could prove to be the position that best suits him.

Steyn was always being groomed to play at inside centre. Former Bulls head coach, Heyneke Meyer, confirmed this to last year, explaining that the 23-year-old possessed the full range of skills needed to succeed in the role. He’ll also take some of the pressure off Hougaard as far as tactical kicking is concerned, giving the Bulls a wider range of attacking punting options. Add to this the fact that IRB Player of the Year Bryan Habana is set to return on the left wing, and the Bulls’ back division looks a lot more potent than they have in the last fortnight.

Hougaard, under the tutelage of former backline coach Todd Louden, excelled in last year’s tournament. In 2008, however, he has slipped back into a conservative mindset, often playing from deep in the pocket.

The Lions derby could be the lifeline he needs to prove that his rustiness in the opening two rounds was not indicative of what to expect from him this year. But failure against the limp Lions will heap more pressure on him. The Bulls need the dynamic Hougaard of 2007 to resurface in order to ignite their campaign. The current version just isn’t cutting it.

By Ryan Vrede