Bulls and Crusaders set for Soweto showdown
May 20, 2010
The Bulls' Gerhard van den Heever is tackled by the Crusaders' Richie McCaw and Dan Carter © Getty Images
The Bulls and the Crusaders will renew their fierce rivalry in the unfamiliar setting of Soweto's Orlando Stadium on Saturday with a prize of a place in this year's Super 14 final awaiting the winner.
As defending champions and the form side throughout the campaign the Bulls enter the clash as favourites but due to the impending Fifa World Cup in South Africa they have had to relinquish home advantage normally reserved for the top two finishers at the end of the regular season. As a result the eagerly-awaited match will take place at the 40,000 capacity football stadium on the outskirts of Johannesburg rather than the Bulls' regular Loftus Versfeld home.
The two sides met just two weeks ago at 'Fortress Loftus' and played out arguably the most thrilling game of the season with the Bulls squeezing home 40-35 in controversial fashion. That high-octane, seven-try clash was enthralling from start to finish and all eyes will be on the sold-out Orlando Stadium to see if these two sides can conjure a repeat showing.
That defeat failed to halt the Crusaders' almost annual charge into the post-season with a comprehensive victory over the Brumbies in their most recent outing sealing their passage into the semi-finals. Success in Christchurch saw them book a provisional home semi-final but fate eventually saw them slip to fourth in the ladder as the Stormers eventually claimed second place. The Cape Town-based Stormers did so thanks largely to the generosity of the Bulls with their South African rivals fielding a second string line-up for their clash in Newlands last weekend. That decision by Bulls coach Frans Ludeke drew criticism far and wide and only time will tell if his front line stars benefit from the rest or struggle to recapture the form that got them here in the first place.
Unsurprisingly the big names are back in the Bulls' line-up for Saturday's game with captain Victor Matfield leading the way. Scrum-half Fourie du Preez and fly-half Morne Steyn have also been recalled after being rested against the Stormers. Former Springboks No.10 Jaco van der Westhuyzen comes in for winger Gerhard van den Heever, the Bulls' leading try scorer with eight tries, who remains suspended for a spear tackle against the Crusaders earlier this month.
Jaco Pretorius returns from injury to partner Wynand Olivier at centre while Deon Stegmann will start at No.6 after being rotated with Derick Kuun throughout the season. Lock Bakkies Botha was not included after he was suspended for four weeks for entering a ruck in a dangerous manner just minutes into Saturday's loss to the Stormers.
In contrast, the Crusaders line-up has a settled feel with coach Todd Blackadder making just one change to the side that ended the Brumbies' play-off hopes last weekend. Scrum-half Kahn Fotuali'i returns to the reserves bench in place of Willi Heinz. The in-form Fotuali'i had been dropped for breaching recovery protocol dictated by the team after their 35-40 loss to the Bulls in Pretoria two weeks ago. Elsewhere there were minor injury concerns surrounding fly-half Dan Carter and prop Ben Franks who are both carrying ankle niggles but both are expected to be passed fit to play.
The pulsating nature of the last meeting between the sides remains fresh in the memory and much of the debate leading up to this clash has centred on whether the Crusaders will adopt a similar all-out approach this time.
The word from the Crusaders is that they will with assistant coach Daryl Gibson promising more of the same. "We've tried not to over-think this game too much. The Bulls are a very set team, they do certain things in certain parts of the field and they've got a very good lineout," Gibson said before confirming his side will look to keep the ball in hand.
"They kick to exert pressure and we think they won't do anything drastically different. Both teams will go in with gameplans largely the same as the last two games. We certainly won't be changing a great deal," he added. "You saw the Stormers employ similar tactics against them. It's really suiting the style we want to play at the moment, we've got a lot of outside backs who want to get the ball in their hands and run. We've got a good front eight to exert pressure in the set piece. It's a formula that's worked well and it's one we'll continue to use."
In contrast, Bull stalwart Matfield, who will rack up his 100th Super Rugby appearance on Saturday, is unsure whether the Crusaders could afford to play a similar high-risk style.
"The last time we played they were chasing a bonus point to stay in the semi-final mix, so their approach was understandable. This is a semi-final where bonus points are of no consequence, so we're not paying too much attention to what they are saying in the media," said the Springboks lock. "Semi-finals have usually resembled test matches quite closely, in that teams are reluctant to take risks in their own territory and prefer to play for field position then pressure the opposition into errors."
Despite all the talk of a potentially free-flowing game there is no doubt that this game will be brutal with the battle at the gainline set to decide the game. The war of words in the lead up to the clash has centred on the scrum with the hosts accusing their rivals of illegal tactics but the lineout battle is set to be equally enthralling. While experience up front will be key where the likes of McCaw and Matfield will labour at the coalface, the ability of some of the fresher faces, such as the Crusaders' Sean Maitland and Colin Slade, to handle the intensity of the occasion may prove more pivotal.
The Bulls have played seven-time champions the Crusaders in the semi-finals three times in the past four seasons, winning twice at home and losing once in New Zealand, and this latest meeting has the makings of classic encounter. The Bulls appear to hold a narrow advantage but if the Crusaders are to be beaten then it looks as though they will go down with all guns blazing.
Bulls: Zane Kirchner, Jaco van der Westhuyzen, Jaco Pretorius, Wynand Olivier, Francois Hougaard, Morne Steyn, Fourie du Preez; Gurthro Steenkamp, Gary Botha, Werner Kruger, Danie Rossouw, Victor Matfield (captain), Deon Stegmann, Dewald Potgieter, Pierre Spies.
Replacements: Bandise Maku, Bees Roux, Flip van der Merwe, Derick Kuun, Jacques-Louis Potgieter, Stephan Dippenaar, Pedrie Wannenburg.
Crusaders: Colin Slade, Sean Maitland, Robert Fruean, Daniel Bowden, Zac Guildford, Dan Carter, Andy Ellis, Ben Franks, Ti'i Paulo, Owen Franks, Brad Thorn, Sam Whitelock, George Whitelock, Richie McCaw (captain), Kieran Read
Replacements: Daniel Perrin, Wyatt Crockett, Chris Jack, Thomas Waldrom, Kahn Fotuali'i, Tim Bateman, Jared Payne.
Referee: Stuart Dickinson
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum.
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