Cape Town - The headlines at the start of the week suggested the Blue Bulls were already in crisis after just one round of the Currie Cup, but that is just one of several reasons for Western Province to be approaching Saturday’s Newlands clash with extreme caution.
Quite apart from the fact that the Bulls are wounded and have something to prove, with the supersport.com website reporting that coach Allister Coetzee knows his men are in exactly the same position they were this time last year, when the Newlands game turned out to be one of just two partial blemishes in a league season that saw them go unbeaten.
Province drew with the Bulls in the opening match when the expectation was that they would win comfortably after the Stormers had easily dealt with the Bulls Super Rugby team at the same venue just three weeks previously.
In fact, while the result reflected a draw in that 2013 game, few who were at Newlands that day would disagree with the contention that the Bulls were the better team, with Jono Ross’ men leading for most of the way before WP came back to force a share of the spoils. For the first 60 minutes, WP did well just to remain in the game.
"We have learned from past experience that the Bulls should always be taken very seriously," agreed Coetzee.
"Last year you will recall that we beat, thrashed them in Super Rugby and then when we played them in the Currie Cup everyone expected us to win easily and we nearly came unstuck.
"There is no such thing as a weak Bulls team and what we noted about our last game against them in Super Rugby was that although we won 16-0, the Bulls came back strongly after half-time.
"Once you allow them to get some momentum they become difficult opponents."
Indeed, the end scoreline of that game, 16-0 to the Stormers, was also the final score.
Whereas the Stormers were all over the Bulls in the first half with their attacking game, the Bulls put in a big effort after the break and the momentum shifted.
Although the Bulls weren’t able to make any impression on the scoreboard, they did subject the Stormers’ defensive system to a tough second half work-out.
"As always when playing the Bulls, what is going to be important for us is to be up for the physical challenge.
"We know they are going to come really hard at us, particularly after losing their opening game to the Lions.
"They have a point to prove and we are going to have to be at our best," said the WP coach.
WP has good reason to be treading warily as although the Bulls were thrashed by the Lions, they do have greater continuity from Super Rugby than they had last year.
Their scrum struggled against the Lions, but then the WP scrum wasn’t that great against the Kings either, while the Bulls’ lineout was one area of their game that appeared to function well at Ellis Park.
The WP team for the match will be announced later on Tuesday, but most of the changes that will bolster the side look set to be made on the bench, with Coetzee opting to follow the continuity mantra after his team’s bonus point away win against the EP Kings last Friday night.
"There were aspects of our performance against the Kings that I wasn’t happy with, and obviously our discipline is going to have to improve after all the yellow cards and penalties that we gave away in Port Elizabeth.
"That cost us a lot of momentum. But most of it is about timing and just requires a few small adjustments.
"Unlike the Kings, we opted not to play any games in the build-up to the Currie Cup.
"That was our decision and I am happy with that as the guys have played a lot of rugby this year, but it did mean that there were aspects of our play where we weren’t 100 percent accurate.
"Against the Bulls we know we won’t be allowed to get away with that so hopefully the 80 minutes we had last week will have helped with our game readiness."
Kobus van Wyk made a good recovery from the knock that saw him leave the field early against the Kings and should be back on the right wing, with Cheslin Kolbe continuing at fullback as Jaco Taute makes his comeback after missing last week through family bereavement by playing off the bench, where he will cover both centre and fullback.
Demetri Catrakilis will be retained at flyhalf, which will mean that Kurt Coleman, the first choice for the Stormers at the end of Super Rugby, will also make his comeback off the bench, while another welcome addition through the bench will be the physical lock cum flank Rynhardt Elstadt, who has been out since the early weeks of Super Rugby.
Ruan Botha will return to the starting team and it remains to be seen whether he will be partnered by Manuel Carizza (like Botha normally a No 5) or his promising young teammate from last year’s winning WP under-21 side, Jean Kleyn.
Springbok hooker Tiaan Liebenberg is out with a back injury but Scarra Ntubeni is available for selection and it is just a question of whether Coetzee will start with him or opt instead to play him off the bench, with Stefan Coetzee wearing the No 2.