Cape Town - Can the Bulls bark with the big dogs? That goal will be put to a serious test on Friday night when they take on the Ospreys in Swansea (9.10pm SA time kickoff).
It’s not that a defeat will force the Pretoria side out of the playoffs, as they have already secured their quarter-final berth.
Where they end up on the log and perhaps qualify for a home knockout encounter at Loftus Versfeld is essentially out of their hands as well – they need to keep their end of the bargain by winning with a bonus point tonight, but their final log position will depend on the results in other matches this weekend… most notably Ulster v Sharks, Scarlets v Stormers and Leinster v Munster.
But for coach Jake White, it’s about the strides that they have taken forward since that inauspicious beginning to URC life: the 31-3 mauling at the hands of Leinster on September 25 last year at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin.
While the Ospreys are actually below them in ninth spot, they have also won 10 matches and will field arguably their strongest team this season.
Apart from renowned locks Alun Wyn Jones and Adam Beard, there are a number of other Welsh internationals such as centres George North and Owen Watkins, halfbacks Gareth Anscombe and Rhys Webb, as well as tighthead prop Tomas Francis who have a wealth of Test experience.
In contrast, the Bulls have two Springboks in their starting XV – Cornal Hendricks and Marcell Coetzee – and Arno Botha and Embrose Papier on the bench, all of whom have not been part of the national squad for a number of years.
“I literally, at today’s captain’s practice, called them into a huddle and said ‘Look boys. Let’s not forget that we started this comp at Leinster, an international-laden team, and we need to see how we’ve grown. We need to see when we play internationals of the Welsh team now’,” White said from Swansea yesterday.
“It would be a great measurement for me to see how we’ve grown, that there’s been progress as a group to where we want to be. We are still alive, win or lose tomorrow – it’s not the pressure of all or nothing. And then there’s the Currie Cup as well, so there is a lot to play for in the next couple of weeks. There is a lot to be proud of and happy about.
“It’s one of those games where we’ve got to give it everything we’ve got to try and get a bonus point. Then, if we lose the game, we haven’t won much away from home and won’t have a lot of confidence.
“It’s a must-win game for both teams. I spoke to the Ospreys coach (Toby Booth) yesterday, and they need to win to play in the Champions Cup next year. It’s one of those games that will take care of itself as it unfolds.
“They’ve got 11 out of the 33 guys that will tour South Africa with Wales, and seven of those 19 forwards. We’re not under any illusions that it’s going to be an easy game and that we need a bonus point, but the reality is that we are going to have to find a way to play well tomorrow… and that’s the most important thing.
“If everything goes our way, by the time we get home at the end of the weekend, we could be in the top four of the URC and top of the Currie Cup, which is not bad in the first season of URC.”
Teams For Swansea
Bulls: 15 Canan Moodie 14 David Kriel 13 Cornal Hendricks 12 Harold Vorster 11 Madosh Tambwe 10 Chris Smith 9 Zak Burger 8 Elrigh Louw 7 Cyle Brink 6 Marcell Coetzee (captain) 5 Ruan Nortje 4 Walt Steenkamp 3 Mornay Smith 2 Johan Grobbelaar 1 Gerhard Steenekamp.
Bench: 16 Jan-Hendrik Wessels 17 Simphiwe Matanzima 18 Robert Hunt 19 Janko Swanepoel 20 Arno Botha 21 Embrose Papier 22 Juan Mostert 23 Stedman Gans.
Ospreys: 15 Michael Collins 14 Luke Morgan 13 George North 12 Owen Watkin 11 Keelan Giles 10 Gareth Anscombe 9 Rhys Webb (captain) 8 Morgan Morris 7 Jac Morgan 6 Will Griffiths 5 Alun Wyn Jones 4 Adam Beard 3 Tomas Francis 2 Dewi Lake 1 Gareth Thomas.
Bench: 16 Sam Parry 17 Nicky Smith 18 Tom Botha 19 Bradley Davies 20 Dan Lydiate 21 Harri Morgan 22 Stephen Myler 23 Mat Protheroe.