Bulls brace for Testing semi

Vlok Cilliers believes the Bulls’ semi-final against Western Province at Newlands could take on a Test-like pattern.

Neither side has been struggled to cross the whitewash in the tournament – WP scoring 51 and the Bulls 56 tries (an average of 3.6 and 4 respectively) – in the league phase.

The Bulls defied expectations against the Chiefs in the Super 14 final in May, shelving a pragmatic approach for a high-tempo, expansive one, which saw them thump the New Zealanders 64-17.

Province have been relatively impressive with ball in hand to date, and certainly possess the personnel to try and run the burly Bulls off their feet – a tactic some of the Pretoria union’s opponents have adopted with varying degrees of success throughout the tournament.

However, Cilliers, the Bulls’ kicking coach and former Springbok, predicted that the skill of the respective packs and their primary kickers, and the redundancy of bonus-points, could see the semi-finalists travel a more circumspect route in pursuit of victory.

‘It’ll definitely take on a Test-match feel, particularly since there are going to be around 20 Springboks on the field,’ Cilliers told keo.co.za.

‘Those players know what it takes to win pressure matches. It’s going to be an extremely tight game, with neither side wanting to gamble in their half.

‘Big play-off matches like these are usually decided by the team that makes the least mistakes, and I don’t think this one will be any different. I think whoever is able to remain defensively solid for the 80 minutes and the team that kicks better will take it.

‘I highlight tactical kicking because I truly believe it will be decisive,’ he continued. ‘We won’t take any chances and we’ll have to focus intently on kick execution. They have very good quality backs who have the ability to strike from broken field. We’ll have to concentrate hard on our kicking and not give them any opportunities to counter-attack.

‘The goal is to minimise the mistakes.’

The Bulls have one of the world’s finest halfback pairs in Fourie du Preez and Morne Steyn, and if Province fail to place sufficient pressure on them, they have the ability to dictate the flow of the contest.

In addition, Steyn has emerged as arguably the world’s most prolific goal-kicker, and Cilliers said his value in this regard would be amplified in a knock-out match.

‘He’s been really phenomenal this season,’ Cilliers said of Steyn, who he has spent years tutoring in the science of kicking, both at goal and out of hand.

‘He’s striking the ball so well and the confidence he gets from his goal-kicking spills over into the rest of his game. So often the converse is true – I’ve seen many goal-kickers fall to pieces when they aren’t slotting their kicks.

‘I think MornĂ©’s boot could definitely be the difference in a game that is expected to be very close. Five penalties usually means 15 points for the Bulls, and teams find it hard to rebound from a deficit like that.’

Cilliers did, however, stress that to rely solely on Steyn and Du Preez to pin Province in their half would be foolish, explaining that other players in the back division had a crucial role to play.

‘I’m happy with the progress [fullback] Zane Kirchner and [wing] Francois Hougaard are making in terms of their kicking,’ he said.

‘Their tactical decision making has become sharper and their execution better under pressure. Their high ball retrieval has also come on in leaps and bounds. That’s testament to the hard work they’ve put in in those areas.

‘We’ve tried to put them in match scenarios in training, where we expose them to the same level of pressure they’ll encounter in a match. They’ve excelled, but we’re not naive, and know that a match situation is very different to training. How they respond there will be crucial if we hope to win.’

By Ryan Vrede