Springbok stars return as Bulls feel play-off pressure against Munster

In-form scrumhalf Embrose Papier will earn his 50th URC cap for the Bulls against Munster today. Photo: BackpagePix

In-form scrumhalf Embrose Papier will earn his 50th URC cap for the Bulls against Munster today. Photo: BackpagePix

Published Apr 20, 2024


A full-strength Bulls – barring a few injuries – are treating today’s United Rugby Championship clash against defending champions Munster as a “final” in the hope of securing home play-offs.

Director of rugby Jake White was yesterday able to include most of his top players who sat out of last week’s Champions Cup quarter-final defeat to Northampton in England for this afternoon’s showdown at Loftus Versfeld (5.05pm kick-off).

But he’s had to reshuffle his loose trio as Springboks Marco van Staden and Marcell Coetzee have been ruled out with knee injuries, which sees youngster Cameron Hanekom shifting to an unusual openside flank position, with Elrigh Louw taking over the captaincy at No 8.

Another co-captain in Ruan Nortjé is not over his hamstring problem either, so 19-year-old JF van Heerden continues at lock in partnership with Ruan Vermaak – and they will face a serious test of their abilities against the world-class Munster second row of RG Snyman and Tadhg Beirne.

But the vast majority of the team that trounced Lyon a few weeks ago will return to action, with Willie le Roux, Kurt-Lee Arendse and Canan Moodie the Bok stars in the backline, and the excellent front row of Gerhard Steenekamp, Johan Grobbelaar and Wilco Louw in tandem upfront.

Hanekom’s selection at No 6 is a surprising one as he has been outstanding at No 8, but White believes he can adapt to openside flank – which is also important as Coetzee has had surgery and is unlikely to play again this season.

“I actually don’t know what’s his best position yet, to be fair. If I look at a guy like Josh van der Flier, he reminds me a lot of Josh – and Josh is an out-and-out openside flanker with pace,” the Bulls boss said yesterday.

“There are things that Cameron does that are Josh van der Flier-like. And when I’ve got (Mpilo) Gumede and Elrigh playing well, Jannes Kirsten coming back, Marco coming back, I’ve then got to find which is the best combination.

“That’s what makes him so exciting. I don’t think it’s a big adjustment to go from eight to six. I asked someone just now – and I don’t know what the English word for it is – but it’s not the same if you don’t say it in Afrikaans: he’s got incredible ‘voorgevoel’.

“In English, it doesn’t sound the same if you say he’s got good feel – and I think that sums him up: it’s almost like he knows where to go.

“There’s nothing I need to tell him (about playing at openside flank). He’s feeling or ‘voorgevoel’ is something that makes him different to other players.”

The Bulls will be keen to prove that the decision to rest their top players against Northampton was the right one, as they will try to secure a possible home semi-final and final by winning their five remaining URC league games.

They are third on 45 points, behind Glasgow (49) and Leinster (54), and will want to beat fourth-placed Munster (43) to keep the Irish province at bay too.

“Home-ground advantage when you get to the end of the tournament is vital. You saw with the Stormers playing two home finals, it’s not only financial, but the ability to actually play against the best teams at home and give yourself a chance to win,” White said.

“Now it’s very open – there are many permutations. You’ve got Leinster out here, and we don’t know what team they are going to pick against the Lions and Stormers (Leinster picked a second-string side yesterday to face the Lions today at Ellis Park).

“The Sharks have gone without their Boks this weekend (against Glasgow last night), which actually puts pressure on us because Glasgow are the one team we would like to catch as well.

“It’s like a final for us as well, because they (Munster) – like the Stormers – were the benchmark for the competition. So, all we can do is just to make sure we win as many games as we can between now and the end of the play-offs.”

Bulls: 15 Willie le Roux 14 Sebastian de Klerk 13 Canan Moodie 12 David Kriel 11 Kurt-Lee Arendse 10 Johan Goosen 9 Embrose Papier 8 Elrigh Louw (captain) 7 Reinhardt Ludwig 6 Cameron Hanekom 5 JF van Heerden 4 Ruan Vermaak 3 Wilco Louw 2 Johan Grobbelaar 1 Gerhard Steenekamp.

Bench: 16 Akker van der Merwe 17 Simphiwe Matanzima 18 Mornay Smith 19 Janko Swanepoel 20 Mpilo Gumede 21 Zak Burger 22 Chris Smith 23 Devon Williams.

Munster: 15 Simon Zebo 14 Calvin Nash 13 Antoine Frisch 12 Alex Nankivell 11 Shane Daly 10 Jack Crowley 9 Conor Murray 8 Jack O’Donoghue 7 Alex Kendellen 6 Peter O’Mahony 5 Tadhg Beirne (captain) 4 RG Snyman 3 Stephen Archer 2 Niall Scannell 1 Jeremy Loughman.

Bench: 16 Eoghan Clarke 17 Josh Wycherley 18 Oli Jager 19 Tom Ahern 20 Gavin Coombes 21 Craig Casey 22 Joey Carbery 23 John Hodnett.