Ockert de Villiers - Sport24
Pretoria - Unless their campaign derails dramatically, the Bulls should experience a better Australasian tour than last year as they can ride on the coattails of recent success at home.
They will open their tour campaign against the struggling Blues side in Auckland on Friday (kick-off at 09:35 SA time) with their hopes of making the playoffs riding on the success of this four-week trip of the antipodes.
A victory over the 13th-placed Blues would see the Bulls move to the top of the South African Conference, usurping the Stormers in their bye weekend.
The Pretoria side suffered four defeats on last year’s tour midway through their campaign, but Bulls coach Frans Ludeke believed they were in a better position compared to last season.
“We’ve had the opportunity to build some momentum into the tour, and I think we’ve found the right balance on attack,” Ludeke said.
“On defence there are really some things that are starting to work where we squeeze some turnovers from the opposition and that gives us broken-field opportunities.
“When you come up with a team like the Blues, with ball in hand they like to carry the ball and offload.”
The Bulls certainly are in a good position considering the health of the squad with the loss of scrumhalf Piet van Zyl the only major hiccup.
However, Rudy Paige’s timely recovery from a knee injury made Van Zyl’s absence easier to stomach as he slots into the No 9 position against the Blues.
Ludeke on Wednesday announced the return of regular captain Pierre Spies to the run-on side where he will replace Arno Botha at the back of the scrum. Botha in turn will move to the blindside with Jacques du Plessis shifting to the bench.
The Bulls mentor said his squad depth should hold him in good stead during the tour, while they could also rely on a strong bench.
“The guys coming off the bench can have a huge impact especially in the last 20 minutes and hopefully inject some pace into the game,” he said.
“They (the bench) also have that ball-carry ability, so it is great to have that depth while I believe the starting XV are the best guys to start off against the Blues.”
The bench will be strengthened by the return of Deon Stegmann while Werner Kruger could make his first appearance since the opening round when he injured his ankle against the Stormers.
Dean Greyling will also feature on the bench where he replaces Morne Mellett.
The side is further strengthened with Jacques-Louis Potgieter recovering from a hamstring strain and replaces Tian Schoeman with tour rookie Travis Ismaiel taking the place of Jurgen Visser among the replacements.
Although the Blues only have two victories to show for their season so far, Ludeke warned they were far more competitive than their log position may suggest.
“They have a very competitive pack of forwards with some quality international players there,” Ludeke said.
“Their scrum especially really puts pressure on opposition ball and they are really effective on their own ball.
“They’ve scored nine of their 24 tries from scrums, so that says a lot about their attacking ability from set-pieces and how they also use the scrums as a platform to attack from.”
15 Lolagi Visinia, 14 Ben Lam, 13 Francis Saili, 12 George Moala, 11 Melani Nanai, 10 Ihaia West, 9 Jamison Gibson-Park, 8 Steven Luatua (captain), 7 Brendon O'Connor, 6 Akira Ioane, 5 Josh Bekhuis, 4 Culum Retallick, 3 Charlie Faumuina, 2 James Parsons, 1 Tony Woodcock
Substitutes: 16 Keven Mealamu, 17 Ofa Tu'ungafasi, 18 Sam Pratley, 19 Will Lloyd, 20 Blake Gibson, 21 Jimmy Cowan/Jamie Booth, 22 Simon Hickey, 23 Matt Vaega
15 Jesse Kriel, 14 Francois Hougaard, 13 JJ Engelbrecht, 12 Jan Serfontein, 11 Bjorn Basson, 10 Handré Pollard, 9 Rudy Paige, 8 Pierre Spies (captain), 7 Arno Botha, 6 Lappies Labuschagne, 5 Victor Matfield, 4 Flip van de Merwe, 3 Marcel van der Merwe, 2 Adriaan Strauss, 1 Trevor Nyakane
Substitutes: 16 Callie Visagie, 17 Dean Greyling, 18 Werner Kruger, 19 Jacques du Plessis, 20 Deon Stegmann, 21 Burger Odendaal, 22 Jacques-Louis Potgieter, 23 Travis Ismaiel