Bulls braced to chase champs

The Bulls expect to be chasing Crusaders players in the wide channels on Friday but they’ll do so bolstered by the return of Victor Matfield and Bryan Habana.

The Bulls were battered by the Highlanders’ direct approach in Palmerston North, succumbing 36-12. It was an uncharacteristic failing for a side who pride themself on their physicality on attack and defence, and the post-match comments of captain Fourie du Preez suggested that that would be their major focus in training this week.

However, they are also acutely aware that the Crusaders will require a significant change in game plan. Where the Highlanders’ primary avenue of attack was pounding phase play, the Christchurch franchise are renowned for playing expansively against the heavy South African packs.

‘It’ll be a completely different challenge to what we faced against the Highlanders,’ Bulls coach Frans Ludeke told keo.co.za.

‘The Crusaders play a totally different style to any of the other New Zealand franchises. They will probably look to spread us wide. They also get a lot of momentum from offloading in contact and they’re very good from broken field.

‘Our defence wasn’t good against the Highlanders. That’ll have to improve this week because if we don’t dominate the collisions and compete at the breakdown they could prosper. The other important facet of play is our tactical kicking. We were badly affected by the strong wind in the first half against the Highlanders, but I think we’ll do better this week. We have to.’

While no meeting with the Crusaders on their home track is one to savour, the Bulls will front the defending champions bolstered by the return of Springboks Victor Matfield and Bryan Habana.

Matfield will strengthen their lineout significantly, and if the Bulls can disrupt the Crusaders there they’ll win a mini-battle which could be decisive to the result.

Habana will play for the first time in a month after breaking his hand against the Lions. While the winger has struggled recently he still possesses an aura which influences the planning of the opposition.

If the Bulls’ inside backs can create space for Habana he may yet rediscover the form that saw him crowned the IRB Player of the Year in 2007.

‘[Matfield and Habana] bring a massive amount of experience to the side and they are highly respected by the opposition,’ Ludeke said.

‘Victor is a key member of our decision-making axis and his leadership is as vital as his playing contribution.

‘Bryan has been great for the vibe of the team since he’s arrived. He remains a special player in my view and I expect him to play a big role for us in this campaign.’

Ludeke added that there were no serious injury concerns in the squad. It is yet unclear whether he’ll resist the urge to make changes to his starting line-up outside of Habana and Matfield’s inclusion.

Matfield is expected to replace Danie Rossouw in the second row. In earlier rounds Ludeke has preferred Dewald Potgieter to Rossouw at blindside flank and is likely to stick with the youngster, with Rossouw playing off the wood.

The Bulls have also adopted the strategy of rotating their front row forwards and in this regard Werner Kruger could get a crack ahead of Rayno Gerber. Hooker Derick Kuün should keep his place, with Chiliboy Ralepelle providing cover.

The other point of interest is whether Ludeke opts to persist with Jaco Pretorius at outside centre. Pretorius was his starting pick in the early rounds, but subsequently lost his place to JP Nel. Given the attacking prowess of Crusaders midfielder Casey Laulala, Ludeke may look to shore up that channel by selecting Nel.

By Ryan Vrede

Bulls (possible) - 15 Zane Kirchner, 14 Akona Ndungane, 13 Jacobus Nel, 12 Wynand Olivier, 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Morné Steyn, 9 Fourie du Preez, 8 Pierre Spies, 7 Pedrie Wannenburg, 6 Dewald Potgieter, 5 Victor Matfield (c), 4 Bakkies Botha, 3 Werner Kruger, 2 Derick Kuün, 1 Gürthro Steenkamp.
Subs: 16 Chiliboy Ralepelle, 17 Rayno Gerber, 18 Wilhelm Steenkamp, 19 Danie Rossouw, 20 Heinie Adams, 21 Burton Francis, 22 Jaco Pretorius