Duels Bulls must boss for Loftus upset

    2018-02-23 13:49

    Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

    Cape Town - If only the once much-trumpeted “altitude factor” still applied to the extent it once did in Super Rugby.

    But the more often Australasian rugby players visit our shores these days, the less of an issue it really is.

    If anything, there are plenty of occasions when New Zealand-based teams, in particular, run their South African opponents clean off their feet on the highveld … finding the hard, fast pitches an agreeable offset to the supposed burning-lungs drawback.

    Still, it is unforgiving high summer in Pretoria and the Hurricanes, traditionally one of the most expressive and fast-paced teams in the competition, may just find that a full 80 minutes of high-tempo dynamism is beyond them on day one of the competition for both themselves and underdog hosts the Bulls on Saturday.

    That said, they remain fairly obvious favourites and if John Mitchell’s rebuilding charges are to register an upset, here are a few individual duels it might be crucial for them to govern …

    Johnny Kotze v Julian Savea

    It’s tough enough being a reasonably makeshift wing … even tougher when your job is to police Julian “The Bus” Savea. But former WP/Stormers midfielder Kotze, taking advantage of the absence of injured Jamba Ulengo, will need to muster all of his nuggety qualities (1.85m, 90kg) in the left wide berth against explosive All Black flier Savea. He will concede a fair bit in experience, weight, height and speed but otherwise … er, he’ll be fine. Besides, a bit of heart on the day goes a long way. In his favour, the 54-cap international he opposes can drift in and out of matches when his focus isn’t at its fullest, and Savea is also playing this fixture on his slightly less familiar right wing. Could it be that the big unit wants a stab at the All Black No 14 jersey this year, now that Rieko Ioane has basically nicked the No 11 one?

    Handre Pollard v Ihaia West

    One thing is highly likely: Pollard will be better than when he started last season against the Stormers at Newlands. Then, he was still short on confidence and game-time after his serious knee injury and had a horror show by his high standards in the derby defeat. But the pivot clawed his way back during 2017 and was looking more like the player who was so special two or three years earlier by the time the season ended. Pollard’s passing and grubber skills and ability to take the ball flat will be important if the Bulls are to shock the ‘Canes. He is probably up against two class acts in the channel, however, as a certain, silky-skilled Beauden Barrett should get half an hour or so off the bench, after former Blues flyhalf (2014-17) Ihaia West starts in the berth for the visitors.

    Roelof Smit v Ardie Savea

    Injury-dogged in 2017, Smit will wish to roar out of the blocks in a quest to make up for lost time in this year’s Super Rugby. The open-side flanker from Queenstown was developing nicely a year earlier, when he earned a non-Test Springbok appearance at the outset of the Bok Euro tour, starting a 31-31 draw with the Barbarians before a torn “pec” cruelly stripped away any Test chance on that mission. He is an energetic character … an essential attribute if he is somehow outshine Savea, the deceptively strong, nippy, low-centre-of-gravity occupant of the ‘Canes fetcher position. He got six tries in Super Rugby last year, including two in the opening-day 83-17 rout of the Sunwolves, to simply confirm what an amazing linking player he can be. Smit will probably try to work a little closer to the heat of the action, a duty that will include slowing down the release of Hurricanes attacking ball to the best extent he can.  

    RG Snyman v Vaea Fifita

    This is an enticing clash of two young, athletic locks whose prime days potentially still lie ahead of them. Fifita is as pleasing a ball-carrier as you could wish to see from a tight-five member (though he is virtually as comfortable in a back row), and that hallmark went a long way to explaining his first handful of All Black caps in 2017. Snyman is also a rangy, hard-to-stop player when on the rampage in open play, and will try to use his height advantage of some 10cm to make Fifita’s front-of-lineout work a disrupted exercise. Helped by similarly tall-timber Lood de Jager in the middle, the Bulls doubtless have high hopes of ruling the skies in this one, an event that might spark memories of Victor Matfield’s majesty if the current lock pair are at their best in the phase.

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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