Bulls desperate to find groove
Last year they played to a 24-all draw and the year prior a last-ditch Lima Sopoaga penalty goal decided matters in the Highlanders’ favour.
This season the Highlanders have won just one game in four and suffered a shock defeat to the Melbourne Rebels at home last time out.
The Bulls have careened from one ignominious defeat to another, with the Jaguares doing the damage in a 39-24 loss at Loftus last weekend.
The loser of this encounter will take a flight off shame on Monday: the Bulls go on a tough four-week Australasian tour and the Highlanders make their way to Argentina.
This match will mark either the turning point for the luckless Bulls, who are beggars on the sidewalk hoping for a charitable win, or turn the slide into a full blown crisis. Unfortunately there are no giveaways in Super Rugby and they will have to work smartly to outwit the Kiwis in Pretoria.
A lot will depend on how the Bulls counter the Highlanders’ rapid ball-retention. There’s nothing All Black Aaron Smith loves more than quick ball from the base and if the visitors have a merry old time at the breakdown, the scrumhalf will bring a reign of terror at Loftus.
On paper, the Bulls come into this gun battle with some nail-clippers. Aside from Springbok opensider Marco van Staden, it’s unclear whether rookie No 8 Muller Uys and Josh Strauss can match Shannon Frizell, Dillon Hunt and Mikaele Tu’* .
“The breakdown battle is going to be very vital,” captain Trevor Nyakane said. “The Highlanders play a bit differently to some of the teams we’ve faced. They thrive on quick ball.
“For them it’s about setting up the next phase and get the ball out as quickly as possible, which gets a lot of defences bunched and they can out-flank you and play around you. We need to be able to slow that ball down. Marco is one of the guys that will enjoy that role but you have to do it with care. If you commit too many players into the ruck and they get the ball, you’re going to be in trouble on the outside.
“We are going to have to pick our moments when to get our hands into the ruck.
“But the best way to stop them is by being physical and having dominant tackles. If you can get that right it will put their cleaners under pressure. That will slow their ball down and help us align on defence and set as early as possible.”
The forwards, who were physically outmuscled by the Jaguares last weekend, will have to hunt in a strong pack to set up the platform for young half-back Embrose Papier and flyhalf Manie Libbok to fire.
Libbok has the qualities to make that backline sing, while Rosko Specman has the magic feet to make them dance. The question is whether they can finally find their groove.@Sbu_Mjikeliso