Bulls

Preview: S14 semi-final – Bulls v Crusaders

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This could be a classic. It is a game that features the tournament’s most successful team, a side with a proven winning recipe, against the side currently on the hottest streak of the year.

The question is simple: “Will the Crusaders’ proven play-off track record be the decisive factor, or will the Bulls continue with their impressive form?”

The answer to that question will only be provided from about 17.30 (15.30 GMT) on Saturday afternoon, when we will see these two giants go head-to-head at a sell-out Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria.

How then do you separate these two when assessing their prospects?

Play-offs, semi-finals or finals, are always about which team is most focused, more hungry, takes its opportunities, are the most disciplined and makes the least number of mistakes.

It’s best thus to look at what tactics they may employ, or look at what tactics worked for them in the past.

The Crusaders, in their previous 11 encounters with the Bulls, have almost always had the measure of the Bulls. On only two occasions have the Bulls won.

In recent times the Crusaders’ tactics were simple against the Bulls – they avoided line-outs and kept the ball away from the Bulls’ marauding forwards by kicking deep and then putting pressure on.

Bulls coach Heyneke Meyer expects the visitors from New Zealand to use pretty much the same approach.

The only difference is that this time his team have the skills, pace and stamina to cope with a more expansive approach. He feels his forwards are now capable of coping when the game is taken out wide.

“For sure, those tactics worked for them twice already,” Meyer said.

“However, about six players who are playing now did not play in Christchurch [a 10-32 defeat for the Bulls] and we have worked really hard on our counter attacking and how we play from deep.

“We have worked very hard on our handling and we can attack from other places, from deep.

“At a stage [in the last game] we got involved in a kicking battle with them and just kicked the ball back at them. But now we have the counter-attacking and kicking ability and the confidence as well to use it.

“I do expect them to use the same tactics with which they beat us last time, but we are also a very different team to that match [in Christchurch].”

Meyer has the utmost respect for the opposition, and regards them as “a very good team”.

And so he should. They have won the title six times and played in the semi-finals eight times in the last nine years.

However, there is something special about a Bulls team that plays with the confidence that the current crop of Bulls display.

“I truly believe that if we play like we are capable of playing we can beat any team on any day, especially at Loftus,” Meyer said.

The other crucial factor is how the Bulls’ lose forwards coped with teams trying to take the ball wide and play and expansive game – trying to run the big forwards ragged.

“We are a lot fitter than we were [in the Christchurch encounter back in mid-March] and we also have the pace in the pack now. We have a far more balance team – especially with the loose trio that are playing such brilliant rugby.

“We certainly have more pace than what we had in Christchurch and I’m convinced that with a bit of luck we will do it.”

Such confidence is often misconstrued as arrogance. But the Bulls have every right to be confident, based on their form of the last four weeks. Having scored 212 points and 29 tries in four games – while conceding just 40 points and four tries – suggests they are in a mean mood.

The Crusaders’ recent form is not as impressive. In fact they are coming off back-to-back defeats, against the Brumbies and Chiefs, which saw them slip from first to third place on the standings.

But Crusaders coach Robbie Deans know that what happened in the league stages means nothing in the play-offs.

Now there are no second chances. One slip and you are out of the competition.

“This weekend a whole new competition starts,” Deans said this week.

“It is one that we have earned the right to be involved in which is, in itself, very exciting.

“Fourteen teams started out in this year’s championship. Only four have been good enough to advance to the semi-finals.

“That we are one of those sides is great. To have a shot at the title is great.

“To have earned the opportunity we have is reward for all concerned, in terms of all of the hard graft that has already gone into the campaign.”

And that says it all.

The Crusaders have a very good shot at winning and making it to the Final … maybe even going all the way and winning their seventh title.

Players to watch:

For the Bulls: There are quite a few game breakers in this Bulls team, real special players like flyer Bryan Habana who has recently found his form again, loose forward Pierre Spies, lock Victor Matfield … to name but a few. However, the key player for the Bulls is scrum-half Fourie du Preez – who ironically is still a doubtful starter. If he plays, and a final call is likely to be made only hours before kick-off, then his leadership, skills around the edges of scrum and ruck, as well as his brilliant kicking game could prove to be the difference.

For the Crusaders: They are not six-time champions for nothing. They also have a host of special players – with the likes of Dan Carter and Richie McCaw on top of that list. But the key players for the Crusaders are their tight forwards -how the likes of Ross Filipo and Chris Jack will cope with the Bulls’ line-out towers, while the front row of Campbell Johnstone, Corey Flynn and Ben Franks must stand firm in the scrums.

Head to head: Derick Hougaard (Bulls) versus Dan Carter (Crusaders) – these two have showed, over and over, what special players they are. Carter is often labelled as the best fly-half in the world and with good reason too. His skills are unsurpassed – a great running game and a boot to match. However, Hougaard – once regarded as just a limited kicking fly-half – has developed into one of South Africa’s premier pivots and he now has great variation in his game. The battle at the breakdown will also be crucial and here we can look forward to a great tussle between Wikus van Heerden (Bulls) and Richie McCaw (Crusaders), two of the masters of the turnover.

Previous matches:
2007: Crusaders won 32-10, Christchurch
2006: Crusaders won 35-15, Christchurch (semi-final)
2006: Crusaders won 35-17, Pretoria
2005: Bulls won 35-20, Pretoria
2004: Crusaders won 40-21, Christchurch
2003: Bulls won 32-31, Pretoria
2002: Crusaders won 49-15, Christchurch
2001: Crusaders won 42-29, Pretoria
2000: Crusaders won 75-27, Christchurch
1999: Crusaders won 30-28, Pretoria
1998: Crusaders won 31-20, Christchurch

Prediction: Play-offs are always tough to call, because you don’t really have an insight into the mental state of players – are they too tense, or too relaxed. Who is the hungrier. However, we have to assume both teams are equally desperate and thus we have to predict on form, class and skill. It still remains pretty even, but the Bulls do have home ground advantage … a definite edge. If the Bulls play the same game they have been playing lately they should win but if they play a conservative game like they do normally in these circumstances then the Crusaders will take it.  The Bulls by 5.


Teams:

Bulls: 15 Johan Roets, 14 Akona Ndungane, 13 JP Nel, 12 Wynand Olivier, 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Derick Hougaard, 9 Fourie du Preez/Heinie Adams, 8 Pierre Spies, 7 Wikus van Heerden, 6 Pedrie Wannenburg, 5 Victor Matfield (c), 4 Danie Rossouw, 3 Rayno Gerber, 2 Gary Botha, 1 Gurthro Steenkamp.
Replacements: 16 Jaco Engels, 17 Danie Thiart, 18 Bakkies Botha, 19 Derick Ku’n, 20 Heinie Adams/Nicholas Eyre, 21 Morn’ Steyn, 22 Jaco van der Westhuyzen.

Crusaders: 15 Leon MacDonald, 14 Rico Gear, 13 Casey Laulala, 12 Aaron Mauger, 11 Caleb Ralph, 10 Daniel Carter, 9 Kevin Senio, 8 Mose Tuali’i, 7 Richard McCaw (c), 6 Reuben Thorne, 5 Ross Filipo, 4 Chris Jack, 3 Campbell Johnstone, 2 Corey Flynn, 1 Ben Franks.
Replacements: 16 Ti’i Paulo, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Michael Paterson, 19 Kieran Read, 20 Andrew Ellis, 21 Stephen Brett, 22 Johnny Leo’o

Date: Saturday, 12 May
Venue: Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria
Kick-off: 17.30 (15.30 GMT)
Conditions: Sunny and warm. High 25’C, low 6’C
Referee: Matt Goddard (Australia)
Touch judges: Paul Marks (Australia), Brett Bowden (Australia)
Television match official: Julian Pritchard (Australia)

By Jan de Koning 365 Digital 

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