PRETORIA – A look at the Bulls team sheet to face the Lions in their Super Rugby derby and many will predict that the result of this affair is a foregone conclusion.
But not for Bulls coach John Mitchell and his injury ravaged side.
Mitchell has thrown down the gauntlet to his inexperienced outfit which will be led by Springbok lock RG Snyman to not only go out at Ellis Park and make names for themselves but to also give themselves hope ahead of next season.
Without a handful of their Springboks and frontline players, the Bulls look a shadow of the team that began the season with so much promise of a better campaign. But it is in the fringe players and some youngsters that Mitchell is hopeful that the future of the franchise will shine brightly in the face of coming up against the best team in South Africa for the past few years.
Regular flyhalf and Springbok Handre Pollard has been sidelined by a back injury which will see him sit out for a couple of weeks. Former Junior Springbok pivot Manie Libbok takes over the reins at No 10 while Springbok scrumhalf Ivan van Zyl replaces another international in Embrose Papier who drops to the bench.
There is concern over the fitness of inside centre Johnny Kotze with Mitchell set to make a decision either today or before the match tomorrow.
If Kotze fails to be fit in time for the game, then Warrick Gelant could possibly move to inside centre with Divan Rossouw elevated to the starting line-up at fullback.
Springbok wing Travis Ismaiel returns from injury and will start ahead of Rossouw while in the pack Thembelani Bholi is elevated to the starting loose trio and Jannes Kirsten moves from flank to the second row in place of Ruben van Heerden.
It is on the bench where the Bulls are running thin on experience with three probable debutants in hooker Johan Grobbelaar, loose forward Ruan Nortje and flyhalf Boeta Hamman.
While a positive approach to the game will ignite a bit of fight in the Bulls team, Mitchell knows that it will take an “extraordinary” performance for his side to stand a fighting chance of defeating the Lions in their backyard.
“It is important that we go with an extremely positive mindset,” Mitchell said at yesterday’s team announcement press conference at Loftus Versfeld.
“We are well aware of their strengths, what they have trended in the competition and how important the game is to them. What is important for us is to make sure we finish off with a performance that we are pleased with. We are going to have to be extraordinary on the weekend. This group is going to have to be extraordinary to create a very good performance."
"So that is the challenge in front of us, it has nothing to do with closure, it’s about achieving an extraordinary performance. How far that takes us against this very good Lions side is something that we can’t control. But what we can control is turning up with an extremely positive mindset and giving it a crack.”
With nothing but pride really left for the Bulls to play for after a three-match losing streak to the Jaguares, Brumbies and Sunwolves cost them a chance of a play-off berth, it will be the Lions that will have to do all of the playing and earn themselves a result if they are to be crowned conference winners.
For the Bulls, it will be far from a lost cause as Mitchell wants the next generation to prove themselves worthy to play Super Rugby and be part of next year’s group to mount a challenge for the title.
“They are at the top for a reason. They are the best side in our conference and they have demonstrated that and been the benchmark for our country for a while now. And it is important for us to measure ourselves against them.
At the end of the day there is nothing better than playing at Ellis Park and playing in the derby. What they have at stake is the ability to finish at No 1 which also gives them the ability to climb up and where they head in the semi-final,” Mitchell said.