Johannesburg - With 11 days to go to the start of Vodacom Super Rugby, the season already looks set to kick off on a massive high note with the north-south showdown between the Vodacom Bulls and DHL Stormers.
According to the supersport.com website, If pre-season results are anything to go by, both sides will be close to full-strength and in good form, offering the Southern Hemisphere tournament’s Saturday night showpiece in week one as the perfect appetiser for the season.
Both teams passed their most significant pre-season tests this weekend with more comfort than they expected and will now head into the final week of preparation before their Valentine’s day showdown at Loftus Versfeld.
For the Bulls that means close to having the entire week off when they return from their London jaunt on Monday afternoon, while the Stormers will still run two separate games at the Cape Town stadium this weekend in their final pre-season games.
Up country, the Bulls are certainly boasting a lot more depth than in the past, with the addition of former Toyota Cheetahs players Trevor Nyakane and Lappies Labuschagne adding a new dimension. Add to this the find of 19-year old Hanro Liebenberg – impressive in both warm-up games – and loose forward looks to have a lot more competition than in the past.Veteran Deon Stegmann has been good in the two pre-season outings, but it is Labuschagne’s arrival, and the work he has done off the ball, which has been something worth watching.
Pierre Spies’ good comeback in London, and Arno Botha’s run in Polokwane mean that the Bulls will have an interesting decision waiting for them at loose forward, with the bench likely to have some extra firepower on it.
For their two pre-season outings the Bulls also can count the success of Jacques du Plessis at lock as a massive one. With Flip van der Merwe out for a reasonable chunk of the early season, Du Plessis has looked more impressive, and more in tune at lock than he did at blindside flank and could go a long way in making a name for himself at national level if he continues in this path.
Victor Matfield has been spared any pre-season action, but is likely to return for the Stormers game, with workhorse Grant Hattingh likely to be on the bench given his versatility. Still, anyone who has seen the pre-season action, coupled with the Bulls practices, knows that the emerging trio of Marvin Orie, RG Snyman and Irne Herbst may be young, but are key to the pack making an impact in the competition this year.
Francois Hougaard gave us a decent reminder of how dangerous he is at wing, and with Piet van Zyl’s early season form being a key factor, it may be a good thing for the Bulls to have a look at him out wide, especially with veteran Akona Ndungane struggling with a niggle or two.
If Ludeke trusts his youth brigade, you can expect Boks Handre Pollard and Jan Serfontein to start the Loftus game, with William Small-Smith knocking hard at the door and reminding JJ Engelbrecht that there is a lot more competition this year. Ditto for Jurgen Visser, who gave a good performance in London, and will have the talented Jesse Kriel breathing down his neck throughout the season.
The Bulls biggest concern remains their scrum. While Saturday saw the Saracens pack get away with scrumming in, and the referee not helping matters with his inconsistent explanations, the Bulls needed to do more to adapt better.
In Polokwane it was the same, with the Cheetahs scrum looking decidedly better for large parts of the game. The introduction of Adriaan Strauss will help things in the scrum, but if Marcel van der Merwe is injured for more than the expected two weeks, they could have a problem at tighthead.
The Stormers, by all accounts were just as impressive in Friday night’s 39-31 win over the Cheetahs in Cape Town, allowing the Bloemfontein side to score late in the game to make the scoreline respectable.
Yet the fact they led 32-7 at one stage shows just how clinical Allister Coetzee’s side can be at this pre-season juncture, and their dominance over the Bulls over the past few years will give them extra impetus to add another scalp when they get to Pretoria.
The loss of Eben Etzebeth – who looks set to miss the Loftus game – will be a setback, but is probably a lot wiser in the long-term plans, but the Stormers have a pack that will test the Bulls and a backline that can score from anywhere.
Their one concern after Friday night’s game was the ease the Cheetahs scored two driving maul tries against them - something the Bulls pride themselves on and looked impressive in crafting their opening two tries from mauls.
This is certainly an area the Stormers need to be better defensively when they come to Loftus, something Coetzee and co know all too well.
"The negatives for me were the two maul tries we conceded, we are not a team that concedes maul tries like that so that is something we will work on,” Coetzee said after Friday’s game.
"There is a lot of work to be done still. The mindset of the Bulls pack is about forward dominance which is built on a maul and we conceded two maul tries, so we have got work to do.
"In all other areas of the game there are good signs and good improvement so it is a good platform to build on for our first game," he added.
Super Rugby may have a load of games that feel inconsequential at times, but this opener is set to be a humdinger.
And if it lives up to the hype the competition can only be richer because of it.