Clash of the Titans
Based on first-hand experience of Stormers vs Bulls clashes, Loftus Versfeld on Saturday is likely to see the most intense and fiercely-contested match of the Super Rugby season so far.
Why does this north-south derby mean so much more to the players than any other derby?
Along with the excitement of winning a big game and gaining log points, team pride and long-cherished tradition are probably the biggest factors.
The personal challenge of measuring oneself up against one’s Bulls counterpart, and team pride in endeavouring to overcome the massive onslaught from our great rivals from the north, combine to take the players’ motivation to its zenith.
The Bulls would feel the same towards us. In internal South African rugby terms, it doesn’t get any bigger than this.
The Bulls’ game revolves around a philosophy of execution above innovation. They could effectively give us their playbook, because we know in some detail what they are going to do.
They appreciate that through our detailed analysis we will have a very good idea of what they will do and where they will try to do it.
They will not deviate significantly from their tried-and-tested game-plan. Their challenge is loud and clear: “We know what we do; you know what we do – try and stop us!”
Our key on defence will be stopping their ball carriers behind the advantage line. But they need field position to attack with ball in hand, and have two ways in which they attempt to achieve that.
The one is an aerial attack, so how we handle their up-and-unders is going to be critical to the outcome of the game. And the second way in which they will look to gain territory will be with long-distance kicks, hoping that our return kicks are not long and pinpoint, hence securing line-outs in our half from which to launch their attacks.
The accuracy of their kicking game is thus crucial to them, while our fielding of high balls and kick-returns are essential to us repelling their offensive platform.
I believe that in terms of running at the opposition on attack, a night game at Loftus will be preferable to one at Newlands, as the dry air is more conducive to the ball having grip.
Newlands can get problematically greasy at night, with the ball becoming increasingly difficult to control. Players will tell you that games, which kick off at 7.10pm at Newlands, make for a slippery ball, which is by no means easy to handle, even for those who are ordinarily the most skilful players. Attacking play therefore assumes bigger risk because mistakes are more prevalent.
For the Stormers it will be pivotal to success to play in the right areas of the field, to retain possession for long periods, and to force the Bulls to make errors in their half so that we can coordinate attacking sorties – and if we don’t score tries, to be in position to kick penalty goals.
That is not to say the Stormers are not going to look to play expansive rugby when wide attack is ‘on’, but the likelihood of this game being won with either team gaining a four-try bonus point is not substantial.
The key Bulls’ players are likely to include François Hougaard, Bjorn Basson and Dean Greyling.
Hougaard is a dangerous attacking player, one of those rare talents who can create something out of nothing. He is also a player who inspires his teammates’ defence with his big hits, as Siya Kolisi does for the Stormers.
But most critical to their game will be the execution of his up-and-unders. He has filled Fourie du Preez's boots admirably this season in this department.
Basson's kick-chase will depend largely on Hougaard’s execution, but how skilfully he contests the ball in the air will also have a big impact on territorial advantage for the Bulls.
Dean Greyling is their main ball carrier and they will look to him and Pierre Spies to gain momentum across the gain line. The quality of their carries will determine to a fair extent whether the Bulls gain momentum on attack.
For the Stormers the quality of Gio Aplon's return kicks and his positional play at fullback will be key. And since in my view, Gio is the most potent counter-attacking runner in world rugby; I hope he has the opportunity to back himself a few times on Saturday to cause havoc with the Bulls’ defence.
I love it when he gets that spark of excitement in his eyes and runs from deep. To me, that’s one of the most exciting sights on a rugby field.
De Kock Steenkamp's option-taking in the lineout will be critical to gaining continuity for the Stormers on attack, while his ability to contest Juandré Kruger’s ball will be decisive in disrupting the Bulls' line-out platform. De Kock is an underrated player and capable of doing a great job in the line-outs and around the field too.
Finally, I think Peter Grant's decision-making on when to attack and when to kick to gain territory will be crucial to the Stormers' game-plan. He personifies composure and intelligence and will play a major role in determining the result of the game.
It’ll be good to have Jonathan Kaplan refereeing. The players know him to be accurate and consistent. His composure is always a great asset on the intense battleground.
This could be one of the great games of the Super Rugby season. I wish I could be out there on the field – you have no idea how frustrating it is to be injured!