PRETORIA - The last ray of hope for the Bulls in salvaging their beleaguered Super Rugby campaign will be their return back home.
However, there is one more assignment abroad that they will need to fulfil and a win is almost non-negotiable.
If the Bulls don’t beat the Sunwolves, the only team they’ve been able to beat this season, in Tokyo on Saturday morning then any hope of them making it all the way to the play-offs will evaporate as quickly as they’ve faded in the last two matches against the Chiefs and Blues.
Somehow Bulls coach Nollis Marais remains optimistic that his team can turn around the bad start to the season and their return home will go a long way in making the good team that they are on paper.
But more importantly, Marais believes that his team made great strides in their loss against the Chiefs in Hamilton last weekend and they can build on that performance, which lasted all of an hour, and pull off their second win against the Sunwolves in a matter of three weeks.
“The guys know that they must win every game. That is unfortunately the situation we find ourselves but that is how Super Rugby is. This is an important game for us. If you see how the team came out against the Chiefs last weekend, I think they realized where they are and what they need to do and fix and they played very well,” said Marais from Tokyo on Thursday.
“But unfortunately after 67 minutes we let two tries slip and unfortunately fell out of that match. We were very competitive and at one stage I thought we would pull off a win in New Zealand. But the guys believe in themselves and are looking forward to the match and they know it is an important game for us. Luckily we are returning home and playing the next seven games at home.”
Marais’ plans for that elusive win has been disrupted a bit by the spate of injuries that has hit his team in the past two weeks in New Zealand and that has had an impact on the consistency in team selection.
For the umpteenth time this season, Marais has failed to maintain the same team for consecutive games and this time around he will have to do without vice-captain and Springbok flyhalf Handre Pollard and Springbok lock Lood de Jager who have to be rested as per agreement with the South African Rugby Union.
Furthermore Marais has played some musical chairs with his side, bringing back Warrick Gelant at fullback in place of Jesse Kriel while Tian Schoeman is handed his first start of the season in place of Pollard.
The changes amongst the forwards have been minimal, with Hanro Liebenberg returning at number eight after missing out last week due to injury and Jannes Kirsten making his first start of the campaign at blindside flank. Jason Jenkins will partner RG Snyman in the second row, while Lizo Gqoboka is in the normal rotational switch with Pierre Schoeman at loosehead prop.
In what will be seen as a last gasp effort to spark his team into life, Marais has urged his team to play to their strengths and play until the final whistle in the hope that their change in fortunes will begin a long way away from home before kicking into overdrive when they return to Loftus.
“We have to play to our strengths, settle down, make sure we control the game and not give them too much possession. We have worked hard and put a lot of things in place this week. The guys know you can’t play for 60 minutes and then give the opposition possession to attack. We need to play for 80 minutes and as much as we put a lot of things in place, only the result will show that,” Marais said.
Bulls captain Adriaan Strauss is aware of the danger that the Sunwolves will pose especially playing in front of their home crowd and at a venue the Bulls have never played and he wants his team to match the opposition with the passion towards the game and in performance.
“I am excited to have the new guys in the team as they bring a new energy to the party and will be keen to show what they are capable of. This will be another new venue for us but at least we know what to expect from the Sunwolves. They will play with passion and pace, something we will need to match if we want to return home with a win under the belt," said Strauss.
Bulls team: Warrick Gelant, Travis Ismaiel, Jan Serfontein, Burger Odendaal, Jamba Ulengo, Tian Schoeman, Rudy Paige, Hanro Liebenberg, Jannes Kirsten, Nic de Jager, RG Snyman, Jason Jenkins, Trevor Nyakane, Adriaan Strauss (captain), Lizo Gqoboko. Replacements: Edgar Marutlulle, Pierre Schoeman, Martin Dreyer, Jaco Visagie/HendréStassen, Jacques Potgieter, Ivan van Zyl, Francois Brummer, Franco Naude.
Sunwolves team: Kotaro Matsushima, Takaaki Nakazuru, Timothy Lafaele, Derek Carpenter, Kenki Fukuoka, Hayden Cripps, Fumiaki Tanaka, Rahboni Warren Vosayaco, Shuhei Matsuhashi, Yoshitaka Tokunaga, Uwe Helu, Liaki Moli, Yasuo Yamaji, Yusuke Niwai, Koki Yamamoto. Replacements: Takeshi Kizu, Keita Inagaki, Heiichiro Ito, Sam Wykes, Shunsuke Nunomaki, Yuki Yatomi, Yu Tamura, Ryohei Yamanaka