PRETORIA - After nine unbeaten matches, two comprehensive wins over South African opposition and sitting pretty at the top of the Super Rugby log, one would think nothing would be daunting for the Canterbury Crusaders.
But they will this weekend head to Loftus Versfeld, where they last won nine years ago, without the influential figures of All Blacks Kieran Read and Sam Whitelock.
Read suffered a broken thumb in the Crusaders’ 48-21 win against the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein and underwent an operation, meaning he will be out of action for at least six weeks and runs the risk of missing the first Test against the British and Irish Lions in Auckland.
Always an influential figure with his tackle-busting runs and calm leadership, Read would have been the perfect man to lead the side in what will be a hostile atmosphere in Pretoria on Saturday (5.15pm kick-off).
The Crusaders were dealt another blow with All Blacks lock Sam Whitelock being suspended for two weeks on Monday after he was cited for striking a player with his arm in the match against the Cheetahs.
The absence of Whitelock could play into the Bulls’ hands with Lood de Jager and RG Snyman expected to rule the roost in the line-outs, while the Crusaders have also lost another one of their lethal attacking exponents.
Crusaders and All Blacks loose forward Matt Todd is under no illusion of the enormity of the task that faces them in the capital on Saturday and regardless of the Bulls’ indifferent form this season, Todd insists they are a something else at home.
“At home they are a different beast,” said Todd in the aftermath of their win in Bloemfontein. “This is probably going to be one of the biggest challenges of the season for us so far.
“We’ll get excited about facing them because it is going to be a massive task. As mentioned, Loftus is a place where we haven’t been successful in a long time. The Bulls are getting some decent form and we will have to be better than we were against the Cheetahs.”
While the Crusaders’ exploits have been well publicised in recent weeks, particularly after they handed the Stormers the mother of all beatings before climbing onto the plane and handing the Cheetahs a similar but competitive hiding, the Bulls have been hiding under the radar.
As much as last weekend’s bye would have helped them mend some of their walking wounded, the week off would have also given the Bulls enough time to conjure up a winning blueprint that will see them maintain their almost decade-long unbeaten run against the Crusaders.
At the same time, the Bulls could use the game as a springboard to extend their two-match winning run and turn around a season that has gone wrong from the outset.
The Bulls will be boosted by the return of Springboks Trevor Nyakane and Jan Serfontein from their mandatory rest, while they will also have the services of newly acquired former Springbok Sevens and Cheetahs star loose forward Boom Prinsloo, who has penned a two-year deal with the Bulls.
Prop Conraad van Vuuren and utility back Johnny Kotze have been cleared from the injury list and so too loose forwards Ruan Steenkamp and Arno Botha and could be available for selection.
Springbok flyhalf Handre Pollard, centre Dries Swanepoel and flank Roelof Smit are all expected to return to action after the June break.