Preview: Blues v Bulls

Date published: May 14 2015

One of South Africa's top sides face New Zealand's worst franchise when the Bulls travel to Auckland on Friday.

Sitting in a good position, level on points with the Stormers after 13 rounds, the Bulls season will be defined by their overseas tour.

After seven wins from 11 games, Frans Ludeke and his coaching staff are eyeing the top spot in the South African Conference, but there is a small problem.

The Bulls have not won outside of their own country since defeating the Blues in their last visit to Auckland in March 2013. Since then, they have lost all seven of their matches in Australia and New Zealand.

Bucking that trend at Eden Park is therefore essential at the start of a tricky run of matches on the road, with the Chiefs, Brumbies and Rebels to come.

In addition, while the Blues have lost two in a row against the Bulls they have won the two prior to that. The Bulls won on their last visit to Auckland but lost their previous nine away to the Blues. 

However with Handré Pollard at the helm and captain Pierre Spies starting to find his best form, the Bulls certainly won't go into Friday's game short on confidence.

As for the Blues, only two wins all season mean that 2015 has been a disaster.

They have however picked up those two wins in their last five games, both against Australian opposition.

Players like Akira Ioane, George Moala, Hayden Triggs and Ihaia West have all performed well however to hint at a brighter future for the franchise.

The Blues have certainly been entertaining recently; their last two matches have produced 65 and 64 points respectively. Their 13 matches prior to that all produced under 55 in total and an average of 40.

The stats also betray the Blues, given they have the third fewest missed tackles this year and beaten the most defenders, despite just those two victories.

The last time these teams met: In 2014 a late bonus point try from Marcel van Merwe gave the Bulls a bonus-point win at Loftus, with Jacques-Louis Potgieter, Jono Ross and Jan Serfontein all on the scoresheet as Potgieter dominated with the boot.

Players to watch: Leicester Tigers-bound flanker Brendan O'Connor continues to grab attention with his work both on defence and at the breakdown for the Blues, whether making a start or off the bench. The 25-year-old will certainly have his hands full against the Bulls in the battle at the ruck.

Having a fit and firing Rudy Paige at scrum-half meanwhile is good news for the Bulls, with Paige tied second for the most try assists so far this season on five. Paige will lift the Bulls tempo and provide a controlled kicking game alongside Pollard, as the Bulls look to outmuscle their opponents.

Team news: Sir John Kirwan has made five changes to his Blues side. There are three in the pack, with James Parsons and Charlie Faumuina coming into the front row in place of Keven Mealamu and Angus Taavao-Matau. Josh Bekhuis comes in for Hayden Triggs in the second row, while the other two new faces are in the backline. In-form scrum-half Jamison GIbson-Park gets the nod over Jimmy Cowan, with the latter struggling with a shoulder problem. The final change sees Ben Lam come onto the wing for Tevita Li, with Melani Nanai switching flanks to accommodate him.

Spies returns for the Bulls after he came on as a replacement in the team's last Super Rugby clash, a close win over Lions at Loftus Versfeld, and will replace Arno Botha at the back of the scrum. Botha will shift to the flank, with Jacques du Plessis moving to the bench. In the only change in the backline, Rudy Paige comes back at scrum-half in place of injured Piet van Zyl.

Form: The Blues have picked up just two wins from 12 matches this season, with their worst losing run standing at seven games. Their two wins though, over the Brumbies and Force, have come recently before last week's thrashing by the Rebels in Melbourne. As for the Bulls, since losing their first two games of the season they have won seven of their last nine games in a rich run of form.

Prediction: If the Bulls pack can get ont top just as the Rebels did a week ago, then the expectation is that the tourists will get off to a winning start on the road. The Blues can strike from anywhere, but do they have enough power? Pollard's boot could decide matters. Bulls by 7!

Previous results:

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

The teams:

Blues: 15 Lolagi Visinia, 14 Ben Lam, 13 Francis Saili, 12 George Moala, 11 Melani Nanai, 10 Ihaia West, 9 Jamison Gibson-Park, 8 Steven Luatua (c), 7 Brendon O'Connor, 6 Akira Ioane, 5 Josh Bekhuis, 4 Culum Retallick, 3 Charlie Faumuina, 2 James Parsons, 1 Tony Woodcock.
Replacements: 16 Keven Mealamu, 17 Ofa Tu'ungafasi, 18 Sam Pratley, 19 Will Lloyd, 20 Blake Gibson, 21 Jimmy Cowan/Jamie Booth, 22 Simon Hickey, 23 Matt Vaega.

Bulls: 15 Jesse Kriel, 14 Francois Hougaard, 13 JJ Engelbrecht, 12 Jan Serfontein, 11 Bjorn Basson, 10 Handré Pollard, 9 Rudy Paige, 8 Pierre Spies (c), 7 Arno Botha, 6 Lappies Labuschagne, 5 Victor Matfield, 4 Flip van der Merwe, 3 Marcel van der Merwe, 2 Adriaan Strauss, 1 Trevor Nyakane.
Replacements: 16 Callie Visagie, 17 Dean Greyling, 18 Werner Kruger, 19 Jacques du Plessis, 20 Deon Stegmann, 21 Burger Odendaal, 22 Jacques-Louis Potgieter, 23 Travis Ismaiel.

Date: Friday, May 15
Venue: Eden Park, Auckland
Kick-off: 19:35 local (17:35 AEST, 09:35 SAST, 07:35 GMT)
Referee: Mike Fraser (New Zealand)
Assistant Referees: Nick Briant (New Zealand), Aki Aso (Japan)
TMO: Glenn Newman (New Zealand)