Bulls stick with tried and tested
Vodacom Bulls coach Frans Ludeke stuck very much to the tried and tested combinations, choosing his experienced players over the bubbling talent as he named his side for the Vodacom Super Rugby season opener against the DHL Stormers at Loftus Versfeld on Friday night.
Crammed with 14 Springboks – although it must be said a fair number of them have a point to prove after a slump in form last year – the Bulls named a strong side to face their Southern rivals, with two Super Rugby centurions and no fewer than six others who have more than 50 caps in their team.
If experience won games, the Bulls would be firm favourites, yet considering the Stormers' rise over the past few years, the visitors will arrive at Loftus brimming with confidence and knowing they are considered odds-on favourites for the traditional derby game.
And that is perhaps why there is a tinge of disappointment that Ludeke did not look to IRB Junior Player of the Year Jan Serfontein nor his former schoolmate from Grey College Francois Venter in the match 22.
While the Bulls' management obviously picked their most senior side to obtain a victory, it seems there was a bit of a chance missed by not including the youngsters at least on the bench.
There are also questionmarks about the team – JJ Engelbrecht at centre and Lionel Mapoe on the wing when the other way around seems like it may have made more sense, Arno Botha’s role on the bench and Louis Fouche’s place on the bench ahead of Handre Pollard even though Fouche missed the entire pre-season.
Ludeke explained the change to put Mapoe on the wing was simply because veteran winger Akona Ndungane had pulled out only on Monday afternoon.
“Akona pulled out of the side, and Lionel was already on the bench so we decided to bring him straight into Akona’s place,” Ludeke said.
“It was an easy choice. JJ and Wynand (Olivier) played together last year for the biggest part of the Super Rugby season, so we decided to keep the combination together.
“We are in a healthy position and the guys who are injured aren’t long-term injuries. But this team that was picked was the one we felt was the strongest to face the Stormers this weekend.
“The whole squad is in play and everyone knows it. The build-up to the games was very specifically planned and we knew exactly how we wanted to prepare for the start of the season. Everyone had a chance and put up their hands in the pre-season, we weren’t disappointed with anyone in the squad.
"But we decided to go with combinations, because we know what we have in them and we know how they react in certain circumstances.
The danger the Stormers pose at the breakdown is taken with seriousness as the Bulls opted for Stegmann ahead of young Botha, especially as Dewald Potgieter has done a good job at openside in the past.
Stegmann will be wary of the threat posed by both Siya Kolisi and Deon Fourie, who are expert poachers.
Three players could make their debuts for the Bulls, with Mapoe a definite in his starting role while loosehead Morne Mellett will have his work cut out for him going up against Pat Cilliers.
On the bench Grant Hattingh, who has played for the Lions in Super Rugby before, is likely to make his debut for the Bulls if called upon during the game.
“We do have an experienced core of players this year and it is something that hopefully will benefit us,” Ludeke added.
“Even Mornè Mellett, who will start in his first match, has toured with us and played well in last year’s Currie Cup. In this competition one will always be looking at the experienced guys in your team and we are lucky to have a lot of those in important positions.”
Three Springboks – Dean Greyling, Akona Ndungane and Jacques Potgieter – were not considered due to injury, while Emerging Springbok lock Wilhelm Steenkamp is also out of action for another two weeks due to a shoulder injury.
VODACOM BLUE BULLS (with Super Rugby caps): Zane Kirchner (71), Lionel Mapoe (28), JJ Engelbrecht (17), Wynand Olivier (103), Bjorn Basson (42), Mornè Steyn (106), Francois Hougaard (45), Pierre Spies (89, c), Dewald Potgieter (54), Deon Stegmann (60), Juandrè Kruger (17), Flip van der Merwe (48),Werner Kruger (75), Chiliboy Ralepelle (52), Mornè Mellett (0).
Replacements: Willie Wepener (53),Frik Kirsten (15), Grant Hattingh (9), Arno Botha (10), Jano Vermaak (88), Louis Fouchè (10), Francois Venter (8).