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Morne Steyn © Gallo Images

Loftus derby in the spotlight

It is time once again for the big north/south derby, and rugby fans the country over are biting their nails as we await the clash at Loftus Versfeld on Saturday.

Our senior rugby correspondents, Brenden Nel and Gavin Rich, are on the Vodacom Bulls and DHL Stormers beats respectively, and we roped them in to get their opinion of what’s going to happen this weekend.

Here is what they had to say, but remember you can add your opinions in the comments section below.

- also, don't forget to read what the Stormers' Nick Koster has to say.

There have been a number of changes to both sides this week. What influence will this have?

Brenden:To be honest, while it will definitely influence the game, the Bulls changes will only strengthen them. Juandre Kruger comes back and has a great chance to impress Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer, especially with Andries Bekker out.

There is a spot in the Bok team to be taken and Kruger can make it his own. In the Bulls backline, Sadie being dropped is a consequence of his failure to meet the defensive standards set by the side, and he has struggled to come to terms with his defensive role. Against a backline with the calibre of player that the Stormers have, it made sense to include Engelbrecht, who has more confidence currently than his former Stormers teammate.

Gavin: The Stormers earned massive respect from the Sharks' coaches for the way they fought back after halftime last week and proved they are not a team that just goes away when they are down. As John Plumtree said, they are clearly a team that plays for each other and plays for its coach.

But following the withdrawals they have had to suffer this week, in the form of Andries Bekker, Steven Kitshoff and Joe Pietersen - who would have been crucial members of the team at Loftus - plus the continued uncertainty around the status of the flu-ridden Jean de Villiers, you would have to say the Stormers' chances of victory have slipped down a precipitous path into the Jukskei River.

Wynand Claasen's Natal team proved in 1980 that underdogs can win at Loftus, as did another Natal team under Craig Jamieson 10 years later, but it will have to be a blood and guts effort.

Heyneke Meyer's first Springbok squad will be announced right after the match. Will this affect the way the players approach the game?

Brenden: It’s a question that always comes up and yes, players will always deny they have any thoughts about the squad announcement, but they’re only human. If all things are equal, then one game shouldn’t make a difference as Heyneke Meyer will make his decisions on the knowledge of the players and their 13 games thus far in the competition.

Of course a good performance won’t hurt, but all these players have aspirations of winning Super Rugby anyway, and that should be their first goal. In a team sport individualism could be a killer, both for team hopes and for the Springbok aspirations of players.

Gavin: All week the Stormers' coaches have been asked if they think this might impact on their players' approach to the game, but they are putting the cart in front of the horse, or at the very least getting it all mixed up.

The Stormers don't have many likely starting Boks for the following week, at least in the pack, which is where the match is won and lost. And there is still speculation that Eben Etzebeth, the only possible Bok, may not even play.

This might prove to be one advantage to the Stormers in that they can go for broke and risk life and limb in the knowledge they have four weeks to recover before their next match. With so many of the Bulls likely to play against England, or at least wanting to play against England, they don't have the luxury of being able to turn this into a mini-final.

Having said that, the Bulls are playing the Stormers and are seeking revenge for a defeat, so it's hard to imagine them not emerging from the Loftus tunnel with hot air snorting from their nostrils.

What are the individual match-ups that we should be looking out for?

Brenden: The front row were on the wrong side of Craig Joubert’s whistle last time, something Joubert admitted afterwards he hadn’t always got right. The battle starts there first and foremost, and in the line-outs. Physical dominance is what everyone thinks will win the game, but for me it is the set-pieces that will set the trend.

Last time out the Stormers were stronger in the first half and the penalties allowed them to build a lead. That will be the big factor here, and whoever handles the pressure better will come out on top. Individual match-ups aren’t massive, but veteran Akona Ndungane has a score to settle with Bryan Habana while CJ Stander and Siya Kolisi in the loose will be massive.

Gavin: On the highveld the Bulls' kicking game has to be stunted, and in this sense the halfbacks and the fullbacks are key players. Morne Steyn has been in excellent form while Gio Aplon has not played fullback much recently, and it showed last week.

If Jean de Villiers plays there could be an interesting match-up with Wynand Olivier at inside centre, but the game is won and lost upfront and how that turns out will influence how the individual battles at the back turn out.

Where will this game be won?

Brenden: It might sound like a cliché, but the set-piece will determine this one. Both sides have enough game breakers to sustain pressure, but that initial points, pressure and penalties will be crucial. Although saying that, don’t discount a big moment winning the game here.

Gavin: The Sharks exploited the Stormers' lack of experience at loose-forward to gain momentum last week and even though the Stormers have lost two key members of the tight five, it is probably in the back row that the hosts have the significant edge that will ensure them of the momentum they require to win this one.

The first derby between these two earlier this year ended in somewhat controversial circumstances. Will a desire for revenge add a bit of spice to this one?

Brenden: It may, but there is a bigger competition picture to look at here. This game could go a long way to determining the fate of the play-offs, and which side wins the conference.

The Bulls were unhappy at the way the set-piece was reffed last time, and with good reason. They’re hoping for a fairer call this time out. Loftus will be baying for blood though, so it will take a big Stormers effort to beat the Bulls there.

Gavin: If that happens it might suit the Stormers as they have fewer players who stand to lose out by missing a test match the following week should they be cited and suspended or injured. They will be focussing on being as cool and collected as they can be under pressure and just not making mistakes.

The Bulls gave away far too many penalties in the first-round game. I can't see it being an issue though - it is the scoreboard that counts and the Stormers injuries have given the Bulls a significant advantage. If they don't beat the Stormers in this game, how will they be able to handle them if the teams met again at full strength in a play-off?


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