Frans Ludeke has lamented the loss of Francois Hougaard to suspension but expressed full confidence in his replacement Jano Vermaak.
Hougaard will miss the Bulls’ clash with the Blues on Saturday after being found guilty of executing a dangerous tackle on Cheetahs midfielder Robert Ebersohn at the weekend.
Hougaard is a significant loss in light of his form in the last fortnight and especially for a match against a side like the Blues, against whom he will have more time and space to operate, particularly in broken field. He showed his potency in this regard against the Cheetahs and Ludeke was deeply disappointed with his unavailability.
‘He really has settled in well. Honestly we thought it would take him a little longer to get the feel for playing scrumhalf again [Hougaard was deployed mostly as a wing since his arrival at the Bulls from Western Province in late 2007] but he has really impressed,’ Ludeke told keo.co.za.
‘His tactical versatility is good. He likes to run and snipe but his kicking game has come on nicely, he is really improving there. He had good momentum going so it’s difficult to lose him. That said Jano came here [from the Lions] because we saw a highly gifted scrumhalf who could compete for the No 9 shirt. He would start at most Super Rugby teams and that says just how good he is.’
Ludeke said he would not be prescriptive as to how Vermaak must play but explained that primarily he would have to fit into their base structures. ‘From there there is freedom to express yourself,’ he said. ‘Jano has a different skills set to Francois. He is probably better at a field position game but we saw in his time at the Lions that he has the ability to take on the defence. He is experienced and makes good decisions under pressure. We back him to assess the match situation and make the right choices.’
Vermaak is likely to play deputy to Hougaard for the foreseeable future but that hasn’t tempered his ambition for an international call-up. ‘To wear the No 9 jersey for the Bulls is a massive honour and responsibility. There were big names like Joost van der Westhuizen, Fourie du Preez and Hougie [Hougaard] who wore the jersey before me, so I have big shoes to fill. I’m looking forward to it and I’m a bit nervous. I hope to become a Bok here,’ he said.
Casting his vision wider to the decisive facets of play against the Blues, Ludeke said the accuracy of their tactical kicking and defence would be crucial in building pressure that forces the Blues into errors.
‘They are a side who aren’t afraid to attack you from deep in their territory and if your kicking game is off they will punish you from broken field,’ he explained. ‘It’s important that we don’t allow their runners the space to do their thing. The kicks must be spot on and the defensive line must be uniform and dominant. They are the type of side that is almost impossible to stop once they have momentum so we mustn’t give them any.’
Meanwhile Bulls forwards coach and technical adviser Johann van Graan highlighted a more pragmatic side of the Blues as a potential threat. ‘Their tactical kicking is excellent and everything doesn’t just go straight up,’ said Van Graan.
‘They’re also keen to kick along the ground via their outside backs to try and isolate their opponents and put them under pressure. Their kicking patterns are very much like that of the All Blacks. Besides, they’re also a team that can run you ragged and with Ma’a Nonu and Rene Ranger present we’ll have to be on our guard defensively. They can destroy you if you’re not at you best.’
By Ryan Vrede