Bulls pack must make Glasgow feel Loftus Versfeld heat

Akker van der Merwe’s selection at hooker indicates that the Bulls may opt for a more direct approach against Glasgow. Photo: BackpagePix

Akker van der Merwe’s selection at hooker indicates that the Bulls may opt for a more direct approach against Glasgow. Photo: BackpagePix

Published May 11, 2024


Who will blink first between the Bulls and Glasgow in today’s United Rugby Championship showdown at Loftus Versfeld (2pm kick-off)?

It will be a battle of wits between two wily coaches in Jake White and Franco Smith, who have teams equipped to play both an all-out attacking style and a forward-dominated approach to unlock defences.

White was part of the Springbok coaching team in 1998 when Smith was a player in Nick Mallett’s side, so the Bulls and Glasgow mentors have walked a long path in the sport and will know each other well.

The over 1 300m of altitude in Pretoria will surely be a factor this afternoon, but as Munster proved recently, that doesn’t mean that a European team can’t overcome the thin air to pull off victories – with the Irish province beating the Bulls and Lions in consecutive weeks on the highveld.

White fired the first shot yesterday by picking Akker van der Merwe at hooker ahead of the consistent Johan Grobbelaar.

Now Van der Merwe is a master at controlling the ball at the back of a maul, and has scored most of his eight tries from that situation from lineouts this season.

Van der Merwe is also a powerful ball-carrier who will be more direct in his approach than Grobbelaar, who is more mobile and has a higher work rate, and has the ability to be a real factor at the breakdowns.

Smith has responded by keeping the usual Glasgow first-choice front row of Nathan McBeth, Johnny Matthews and Zander Fagerson on the bench.

Hooker Matthews actually leads the URC try-scorers’ list with 12, followed by Van der Merwe and Ulster’s Tom Stewart on eight.

The front-row selection could result in Glasgow utilising their usual ball-in-hand running plan as well that Smith loves so much in all the teams he coaches, but they would be hard-pressed to maintain the intensity for 80 minutes at altitude.

Any loose play can be punished by a lethal Bulls attack, where the likes of Springboks Willie le Roux, Canan Moodie and Kurt-Lee Arendse are waiting to pounce.

The Bulls also boast a well-balanced loose trio, with fit-again openside flank Marco van Staden partnering Elrigh Louw and Cameron Hanekom in a robust combination.

The Bulls would no doubt have learnt vital lessons from their 27-22 defeat to Munster at Loftus on April 20, and will be wary of allowing Glasgow to also dictate the pace of the game.

In fact, that is something mentioned by co-captain and lock Ruan Nortjé this week, but the Pretoria side must also be careful not to get into a free-for-all shoot-out with the Warriors, who would prefer to have a loose game instead of an arm-wrestle up front.

It is about getting the mix just right between imposing physical dominance in the scrums and collisions through Louw, Hanekom, Ruan Vermaak and Gerhard Steenekamp, and providing front-foot possession for Embrose Papier, Arendse and Moodie to strike.

Hot conditions are expected at Loftus today, with 29 degrees Celcius forecast for Pretoria.

So, with a 2pm kick-off, Glasgow will feel the heat, but it is also up to the Bulls to maintain their tempo and keep the URC log leaders guessing in their push for a home quarter-final.

Teams For Loftus Versfeld

Bulls: 15 Willie le Roux 14 Canan Moodie 13 David Kriel 12 Harold Vorster 11 Kurt-Lee Arendse 10 Chris Smith 9 Embrose Papier 8 Cameron Hanekom 7 Elrigh Louw (co-captain) 6 Marco van Staden 5 Ruan Nortjé (co-captain) 4 Ruan Vermaak 3 Wilco Louw 2 Akker van der Merwe 1 Gerhard Steenekamp.

Bench: 16 Johan Grobbelaar 17 Simphiwe Matanzima 18 Francois Klopper 19 Reinhardt Ludwig 20 Nizaam Carr 21 Zak Burger 22 Jaco van der Walt 23 Devon Williams.

Glasgow: 15 Josh McKay 14 Kyle Steyn (captain) 13 Stafford McDowall 12 Sione Tuipulotu 11 Sebastian Cancelliere 10 Tom Jordan 9 George Horne 8 Jack Dempsey 7 Rory Darge 6 Matt Fagerson 5 Scott Cummings 4 Gregor Brown 3 Murphy Walker 2 Grant Stewart 1 Jamie Bhatti.

Bench: 16 Johnny Matthews 17 Nathan McBeth 18 Zander Fagerson 19 Max Williamson 20 Euan Ferrie 21 Henco Venter 22 Jamie Dobie 23 Duncan Weir.