Bulls head coach Frans Ludeke says the play-off against the Crusaders will be characterised by Test-like qualities.
The Bulls enter their fourth play-off in seven years (previously straight into the semi-final phase), but their last in Christchurch in 2006 ended in a comprehensive 35-15 defeat. In fact the Bulls have never won an away play-off in the history of Super Rugby, underlining how difficult their task will be on Saturday.
Furthermore, the Crusaders will field a close-to full strength side, with only Kieran Read unavailable for selection. The Bulls, however, are laden with Springboks, albeit that they cannot match their hosts for Test experience. And Ludeke says the defining qualities of the match will be just like an international.
‘It will mimic a Test match in every way, with the basic keys to success being managing the pressure exerted on you and exerting enough of your own to create regular scoring opportunities,’ Ludeke told keo.co.za. ‘Ill-discipline and goal kickers could decide the outcome, and there are two of the best goal kickers in the game on show [Morné Steyn and Dan Carter].
‘In matches like these a single lapse in concentration can be the difference between winning and losing. We’ve had soft moments this season and we have to ensure that that doesn’t happen against a team like the Crusaders or you’ll find yourself chasing the game. It’s hard to recover from positions like that against teams of that calibre.’
Ludeke says he will focus heavily on the mental conditioning given their limited preparation time. The Bulls departed for New Zealand on Monday evening and will have just one full session (on Thursday) before the match.
‘There really isn’t much technical and tactical coaching you can do in this time frame,’ he said. ‘The guys are very familiar with the structures so it’s about going over that again but also making small adjustments for the Crusaders. They have a way of playing that’s been in place for some time now – they kick into space and are very direct – a lot like us in a way. But in recent weeks we’ve seen that their method of exiting their 22m has changed slightly. They usually kick, but they’ve run a lot. Those are the small details we’ve been looking at.
‘But overall it is about ensuring the players respond well when the heat is on. We have players who know the pressures of play-off rugby (nine of the players expected to be named in the match 22 played in their 39-24 semi-final demolition of the Crusaders in 2010). Those guys must come to the fore and show their experience. We’ve had the benefit of players like Victor Matfield and Fourie du Preez and Bakkies Botha in the past. You can’t make up for their losses in one season. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have a high expectation of the senior players that are here. There’s enough experience in this side and that must show in the way we go about our business.’
The Saders haven’t beaten the Bulls in a play-off in three attempts (2007, 2009, 2010) but all of those defeats were in South Africa and against Bulls teams with some of the world’s best players at their disposal. Asked whether their recent success against the Saders had eroded the aura around them, Ludeke said: ‘No, but you can’t completely disregard the fact that some of our players have experience in beating very strong Crusaders teams recently.
‘But this is their back yard. There’s no question we are the underdogs. We have a process that we’re focused on and hopefully that leads to the end goal we hope for, which is, of course, a win.’
By Ryan Vrede