Cape Town - There may have been a bit of a warm, fuzzy feeling around Loftus Versfeld this week with the official announcement of Edgar Marutlulle as the Blue Bulls Currie Cup coach, but the honeymoon period is over.
The 35-year-old Marutlulle’s opening assignment as a senior provincial head coach is as tough as they come as the Bulls host the Pumas in Pretoria this afternoon (1pm), where Jimmy Stonehouse’s defending champions will be eager to prove that their first title was no fluke.
The Bulls went down 30-19 to Griquas in a Loftus semi-final last June, and will be keen to get the golden trophy back after two back-to-back crowns in 2021.
The home side actually beat the Pumas home and away last season – with a virtual full-strength URC side at Mbombela Stadium in the first round, and then a mix-and-match combination at Loftus.
But the pain of that semi-final loss to Griquas will still be lingering at kickoff today – not to mention the four consecutive URC defeats, with the latest being the 29-25 reverse against the Lions.
Marutlulle was able to select a well-rounded match-23, with veteran flyhalf Morné Steyn the captain and a number of other URC regulars such as Wandisile Simelane, Lionel Mapoe, David Kriel and Sbu Nkosi in the backline, and Jacques du Plessis and Gerhard Steenekamp in the pack.
But reputations will count for little against what will be a typically fired-up Pumas outfit boasting some seasoned campaigners such as Devon Williams, Sebastian de Klerk and Brandon Thomson at the back, and Francois Kleinhans and Corné Fourie upfront.
“When two bulls meet, only the grass suffers! It’s going to be a tough challenge. They are the Currie Cup champions, and no one can take that away – and they’ve had the parade and the parties,” Marutlulle said.
“You’ve also seen with the selection that we are not taking them lightly in any way, and we are not underestimating them in any way.
“Jimmy’s team is always a Jimmy team. You don’t even need to know who the players are – you know exactly that they will be well-conditioned; you know that they’ll come around the corner very hard.
“We all know that Jimmy’s teams are niggly, but also that they really play an abrasive style of rugby. We all respect Jimmy’s team as a coach – it doesn’t matter who the personnel is… The ID of the Pumas is always exactly the same as it has been over the last 15 years.”
The Currie Cup is also an ideal opportunity for fringe players to stake their claim for URC selection, and one man who could do with a big game today is Jan-Hendrik Wessels.
Once compared to Os du Randt by Bulls director of rugby Jake White, Wessels hasn’t quite his straps yet at hooker after switching over from loosehead prop a few seasons ago.
But a regular run of games could do wonders for his confidence, and having a former No 2 as the head coach won’t hurt either.
“As a hooker personally, I take him to heart and I think he is an exceptional talent,” Marutlulle said.
“You see the characteristics of a really good hooker. He is really niggly as an individual… In Afrikaans, they say ‘Jy kan sien hy’s ’n haker – hoe hy met mense praat, hoe hy homself hanteer’ (you can see he is a hooker – how he speaks to people, how he handles himself).
“It is like he is an yster (strong guy): niggly, almost like a honey badger mentality. I am really looking forward to helping him in his development, and I almost take it personally to help Jan-Hendrik get game-time and an accurate level of competition.”
Blue Bulls Team
15 Wandisile Simelane 14 Sibongile Novuka 13 Lionel Mapoe 12 David Kriel 11 Sbu Nkosi 10 Morné Steyn (captain) 9 Bernard van der Linde 8 Mihlali Mosi 7 Reinhardt Ludwig 6 Phumzile Maqondwana 5 Ruan Vermaak 4 Jacques du Plessis 3 Francois Klopper 2 Jan-Hendrik Wessels 1 Gerhard Steenekamp.
Bench: 16 Joe van Zyl 17 Lizo Gqoboka 18 Mornay Smith 19 Janko Swanepoel 20 Cameron Hanekom 21 Keagan Johannes 22 Chris Smith 23 Cornal Hendricks.