The Blues will be looking to avoid a fourth straight defeat in Super Rugby when they host a revitalised Bulls outfit in Albany on Saturday.
The hammering of the Rebels in the opening game of the season seems a long time ago for Tana Umaga’s men as since then they have gone down to the Chiefs, Highlanders and Crusaders on successive weekends. That leaves them 13 points off the conference-leading Chiefs.
Subsequently they desperately need at least four points against the Bulls if they are to stay in touch with the competition pace-setters.
The Bulls meanwhile finally got on the win board last weekend but have already had a bye round so their recent woes are not as concerning.
Games between these sides are often closely fought and three of the last four meetings have seen the losing side get a bonus point. Each outfit has two victories apiece in those four matches but the Blues have won all but one of their previous 11 home games against the Bulls.
What may worry Bulls supporters is that they have won just one of their last 10 games in New Zealand, with their last success coming in round 4 of 2013, at the Blues. It doesn’t get any easier next week too for the Pretoria outfit as they head to Hamilton to take on the Chiefs.
However, with the Blues having now lost their last three matches overall – the last time they suffered a longer losing streak was a run of nine across the 2014 and 2015 campaigns – the Bulls will be buoyed by their rival’s recent woes and hope to strike while confidence is low.
The last time these teams met: Their last face-off came in Round 14 of 2015’s season when the Blues came out on top 23-18, ending a run of two losses to the Bulls. A try in either half from Lolagi Visinia and George Moala and the boot of Ihaia West saw them claim the win, with Jan Serfontein scoring two tries for the visitors. Handré Pollard could only slot eight points off the tee though to West’s 13-point offering.
Players to watch: A relatively quiet game last week as George Moala took the headlines instead, but expect a strong showing from Rieko Ioane this Saturday. The young centre’s battle with Jesse Kriel will be an interesting one and the South African will have to be at his best defensively to stop the quality of Ioane causing havoc. Also keep an eye on the dangerous Augustine Pulu, who has been superb this term.
For the Bulls the return to the XV of captain and hooker Adriaan Strauss is vital and their supporters will hope his carrying with his fellow tight five will be the foundation to a solid away performance. The visitors boast a strong spine while Piet van Zyl and Handré Pollard will pull the strings at half-back with Serfontein and Kriel outside. Pollard, of course, needs to win his battle with Piers Francis for them to get the victory.
Team news: The Blues have made just one change to their starting side for the clash in Albany. All Black Charlie Faumuina is named in the front-row in his expected return from injury, although it will be dependent on how he recovers from Thursday’s final training session as he has been bracketed with North Harbour’s Sione Mafileo. The rest of the starting team is unchanged from the recent clash with the Crusaders.
Bulls midfielder Jan Serfontein will make a 50th appearance for the team. He moves to inside centre for this game after starting at 13 last weekend. He will combine with Jesse Kriel in this first tour match in New Zealand. Kriel’s inclusion is the only change to the backs from the Sunwolves clash but, amongst the forwards, Nollis Marais included regular captain Adriaan Strauss, who will not only take the two jersey from Edgar Marutllule, but also the captaincy from Handré Pollard. Marais has also swapped around Lizo Gqoboko and Pierre Schoeman as per rotation policy and included Nick de Jager on the blindside flank in Albany in place of the suspended Renaldo Bothma.
Form: After an excellent performance in their opening game at the Rebels, the Blues have suffered three straight defeats in Super Rugby. They were all against New Zealand rivals so they should relish facing a non-derby this weekend as they look to get back to winning ways.
The Bulls picked up their first victory of the season last weekend as they overcame the Sunwolves 34-21 in Pretoria, despite having a man sent-off. That result came after their bye week, which had followed opening round defeats to the Stormers and Cheetahs, both on the road.
Prediction: Expect another tight game between these two sides who are both desperate for the points. But we go for the hosts. Blues by 3.
2015: Blues won 23-18 in Auckland
2014: Bulls won 38-22 in Pretoria
2013: Bulls won 28-21 in Auckland
2012: Blues won 29-23 in Pretoria
2010: Blues won 32-17 in Auckland
2009: Bulls won 59-26 in Pretoria
Blues: 15 Michael Collins, 14 Matt Duffie, 13 Rieko Ioane, 12 George Moala, 11 Melani Nanai, 10 Piers Francis, 9 Augustine Pulu, 8 Jerome Kaino, 7 Blake Gibson, 6 Jimmy Tupou, 5 Patrick Tuipulotu, 4 Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, 3 Charlie Faumuina/Sione Mafileo, 2 James Parsons (c), 1 Pauliasi Manu
Replacements: 16 Matt Moulds, 17 Ofa Tu’ungafasi/Sam Prattley, 18 Sione Mafileo/Ofa Tu’ungafasi, 19 Akira Ioane, 20 Murphy Taramai, 21 Sam Nock, 22 Ihaia West, 23 TJ Faiane
Bulls: 15 Warrick Gelant, 14 Travis Ismaiel, 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 Jan Serfontein, 11 Jamba Ulengo, 10 Handré Pollard, 9 Piet van Zyl, 8 Hanro Liebenberg, 7 Nick de Jager, 6 Ruan Steenkamp, 5 Lood de Jager, 4 Jason Jenkins, 3 Trevor Nyakane, 2 Adriaan Strauss (c), 1 Lizo Gqoboko
Replacements: 16 Jaco Visagie, 17 Pierre Schoeman, 18 RG Snyman, 19 Jannes Kirsten, 20 Rudy Paige, 21 Tian Schoeman, 22 Burger Odendaal, 23 John-Roy Jenkinson
Date: Saturday, March 25
Venue: QBE Stadium, North Harbour
Kick-off: 19:35 local (06:35 GMT)
Referee: Nic Berry (Australia)
Assistant Referees: William Houston (Australia), Nick Briant (New Zealand)
TMO: Ben Skeen (New Zealand)