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    Bulls take centre stage as Mitchell era begins

    2018-02-21 11:22

    Cape Town - Super Rugby was given a first glimpse of three of the four South African teams last weekend, but the Bulls will take to the field for the first time on Saturday when they host the Hurricanes at Loftus. 

    It is about as tough an opening match as they could have hoped for, but what it will do is provide a very clear early marker of how far the Bulls have evolved under John Mitchell.

    It has been a pre-season that the players have described as "different", with there being a strong emphasis on things like diet, recovery and off-field education.

    This is the fresh start that the Bulls desperately needed, and if they can hit the ground running with an impressive showing against the Hurricanes, then the rest of the South African Conference will take notice immediately. 

    Lions coach Swys de Bruin has already suggested that the Bulls are the South African team to watch this year, with Mitchell having a reputation for success in his first year at a new club. 

    The Bulls, though, have won just one of their last 12 matches against New Zealand opposition and are coming off the back of two disastrous seasons under Nollis Marais. 

    While Marais looked to be positive at every opportunity, encouraging his sides to attack from deep, Mitchell's approach is likely to be more measured. 

    He will seek to be the balance between the traditional Bulls forwards dominance of old and the enterprising, sometimes reckless, attacking approach of late. 

    A look at the Bulls side on paper suggests that the quality is there. 

    Despite Rudy Paige having been dumped by Mitchell, there is still significant Springbok experience in their backline with Springbok flyhalf Handre Pollard and centre Jesse Kriel likely to be massive players for Mitchell this season. 

    There is also the highly-rated Warrick Gelant at fullback, while Burger Odendaal is now a seasoned No 12 at Super Rugby level. 

    Up front, the Bulls boast more international experience in the form of former Springbok captain Adriaan Strauss, Trevor Nyakane and Lood de Jager. 

    They may not have as many regular Boks as the other South African franchises, but with those players the Bulls should never be leaving a Super Rugby season with four wins from 15 as was the case last year. 

    There are also some pedigree loose forwards in Roelof Smit, Nic de Jager, Hanro Liebenberg and Tim Agaba at Mitchell's disposal. 

    For too long now, the South African sides (with the obvious exception of the Lions) have been lagging behind the New Zealand franchises.

    In Mitchell, the Bulls have a coach who knows the New Zealand landscape as well as anyone. 

    "Playing against the Hurricanes will give us a good indication of where we are," No 6 flank Smit acknowledged in a recent interview with Sport24.

    "If you look at the past, whenever the Springboks have been strong, the Bulls have been strong too.

    "It is important for the country that we get back to where we were, but it is also important for the union."

    Mitchell will name his side for the clash on Thursday, while kick-off on Saturday is at 17:15.

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