CAPE TOWN - Can the Blue Bulls survive without captain Duane Vermeulen? Well, perhaps the time has come for coach Jake White to find out …
The 34-year-old Springbok No 8 has been an immense presence for the Pretoria outfit during Super Rugby Unlocked, and typically led through his deeds rather than words to guide the Bulls to the title.
But he has been taking several big body blows, and White also mentioned before the competition started that Vermeulen had gone for knee rehabilitation during the Covid-19 break.
Looking ahead to the Bulls’ Currie Cup campaign, which begins against Western Province at Newlands on Saturday (7pm kickoff), the coach said that he would discuss the merits of giving other players game time with his management team this week.
He described it as a “Catch-22” situation, as the danger is that he could make too many changes and upset the rhythm of the side, while the coronavirus could derail the best of plans at inopportune times as well.
But as the Bulls director of rugby, he has to develop the rest of the squad in order to prepare them for the rigours of PRO Rugby, which looks likely to start in March.
So, stalwarts like Vermeulen cannot be expected to play in each Currie Cup game over the next seven to eight weeks after coming off a gruelling Super Rugby Unlocked tournament.
The Bulls also have a far tougher Currie Cup schedule, as they play WP away before facing the Cheetahs at Loftus, which is followed by a trip to Durban to take on the Sharks.
A potentially tricky encounter against Griquas in Kimberley comes after that, before they host the Lions in Pretoria before enjoying a bye. They finish off their league round against the Pumas in Mbombela ahead of the semi-finals.
There is ample back-up for Vermeulen to take a breather this week. Nizaam Carr has been a calming presence off the bench up to now, mainly as a flank, but is due a start in his preferred No 8 position.
Tim Agaba started at the back of the scrum in the Unlocked opener against Griquas and hasn’t been seen in action since, so he could come on to the bench to give Vermeulen a complete break.
Other possible changes White could make upfront are in the front row, where Marcel van der Merwe and Gerhard Steenekamp could bring some relief to the hard-working starting props Trevor Nyakane and Jacques van Rooyen.
White is well stocked in the second row as well despite the departure of Jason Jenkins to Japan. Walt Steenkamp has slotted in seamlessly from the Cheetahs, and his old Free State teammate Sintu Manjezi could partner him at lock, where youngster Ruan Nortje can take some time off.
The Bulls don’t have too much reserve firepower amongst the backs, so the backline should remain largely intact against WP.
Morné Steyn is out of Covid-19 isolation after sitting out the Pumas match, so he will reclaim the No 10 jersey from Chris Smith, while Embrose Papier can also be given another start in place of the in-form Ivan van Zyl.
As a bit of an insurance policy, White could pack his bench with big hitters such as Van Rooyen, Nyakane, Nortje and Van Zyl if they are required to rescue matters in the second half – especially in the scrums, where the Stormers boast a World Cup-winning front row in Steven Kitshoff, Bongi Mbonambi and Frans Malherbe.
Both the Bulls and WP teams will be announced on Thursday.
Possible Bulls Team
15 David Kriel 14 Travis Ismaiel 13 Stedman Gans 12 Cornal Hendricks 11 Kurt-Lee Arendse 10 Morné Steyn 9 Embrose Papier 8 Nizaam Carr 7 Arno Botha (captain) 6 Marco van Staden 5 Walt Steenkamp 4 Sintu Manjezi 3 Marcel van der Merwe 2 Corniel Els 1 Gerhard Steenekamp.
Bench: 16 Joe van Zyl 17 Jacques van Rooyen 18 Trevor Nyakane 19 Ruan Nortje 20 Tim Agaba 21 Ivan van Zyl 22 Chris Smith 23 Marco Jansen van Vuren.