The Brumbies visit in Pretoria on Saturday seeking their first win at Loftus Versfeld since 2006…and a place in the Super Rugby Final.
The Brumbies visit the Bulls in Pretoria on Saturday seeking their first win at Loftus Versfeld since 2006…and a place in the Super Rugby Final.
Indeed, the Bulls head into this weekend's clash with the historical statistics weighing heavily in their favour. They have won 22 of their 24 home games against Australasian teams over the past five years and have claimed the spoils in six of their last seven play-off fixtures (only losing to the Crusaders in Christchurch last year).
All those numbers underline the massive role fortress Loftus plays in the Bulls' fortunes. The men in blue are one of only two teams to remain unbeaten on home soil this year, along with the Crusaders, who will play their remaining game(s) on the road. So, it's little wonder that the three-time champions are the odds-on favourites to go on to claim the title.
But the Brumbies have a few numbers of their own that suggest Saturday's result is anything but a foregone conclusion, starting with their hard-fought 23-20 win over Frans Ludeke's team back in March. Add to that last year's clash in the South African capital when the Brumbies outscored their hosts by five tries to two. They eventually lost 36-34 thanks to a kicking masterclass from Morne Steyn, but Jake White will no doubt remind his troops that they could well have won that day.
Last year's result is far more significant than any of the previous fixtures played between these sides on the Highveld as it was the Brumbies' first visit to Pretoria with White at the helm.
The similarities between their respective gameplans has been the main theme of the build up, after Cheetahs coach Naka Drotske highlighted how the Brumbies have adopted a Bulls-style approach since the arrival of White, who was an assistant coach at the Bulls back in 1999. Both the former Springbok mentor and Ludeke have echoed those comments this week, so don't be surprised to see lots of kicking for territory and ferociously contested set pieces.
Steyn's goal-kicking at altitude once again looms as a dangerous threat for the Brumbies, who have coughed up more penalties than any other team in the tournament.
But don't expect the visitors to hold back at the breakdown.
“In the stats you can see we've got the most pilfers, the most turnovers and best ability to slow down the opposition ball, so with that comes the chance of giving a penalty away,” said White.
“One goes in hand with the other and I'm prepared to take the risk of conceding a penalty or two, knowing full well that you get a lot of return on what we do at the breakdown,” said White.
Winning and losing possession doesn't just happen at rucks though and the Bulls have always used their line-out, the best in the competition, to great effect. They will however be missing a crucial member of their well-oiled machine as Springbok lock JuandrÃ© Kruger – one of the best jumpers in the game – has already left for Racing Metro in Paris. His replacement, 22-year-old Grant Hattingh, has some very large boots to fill.
A number of questions marks also hang over the Bulls scrum, which has been found wanting on a number of occasions this year. It's a rare thing for an Australian pack to target the scrum in Bulls country but Ben Alexander and Stephen Moore could well do some damage.
Both sides are coming off the back of disappointing performances in recent weeks and both have spoken of the need to make a good start to get some positive momentum going. One feels the visitors could really be in for a long evening if the Bulls get ahead early and get the home crowd cheering.
The Brumbies were lucky to get past the Cheetahs last week, and the same could probably be said of their win over the Bulls in Round 7, but the trend has been for them the squeak results against South African opposition this season – they've lost just one of their five matches against teams from the Republic (to the Stormers at Newlands.)
For the Bulls, the faster they put last week's disaster against the Stormers behind them, the better. Ludeke will fear that the rot really started against the Sharks a week earlier and that their march toward a fourth title is running out of steam. Luckily there are plenty of experienced heads around to steady the ship.
There can be only one winner in a knock-out clash, and victory will require a turnaround in form. Who will rise to the occasion?
Players to watch:
For Bulls: The last time the Brumbies visited Loftus, Springbok fly-half Morne Steyn was the game breaker for the Bulls with a personal haul of 26 points. Time and time again Steyn's accuracy, not only from the kicking tee, but with bombs for the Bulls' specialist chasers and his long territory-gaining punts have been vital not for both the Bulls and the Boks. In what could be his last game in blue before moving to Paris, on home soil, in the refined air of the Highveld and in a knock-out game…all the ingredients are there for Steyn to play a match-winning role.
For Brumbies: “Our motto is that possession has to be contested and we won't be giving them anything for free,” said Brumbies captain Ben Mowen this week. George Smith is their principle poacher. The stats show that nothing leads to points like turnover ball and the visitors will look to their veteran flank to lead the way at the breakdown. The Brumbies broke a nine-year play-off drought by reaching the knock-out stages this year and Smith is the only survivor of the Brumbies golden era. His experience is priceless for this new generation.
Head-to-head: Both sides have very exciting prospects at inside centre in the form of 20-year-old Jan Serfontein and 25-year-old Christian Lealiifano. Both recently made impressive Test debuts but the similarities end there. Serfontein in a classic hard-running South African 12, who looks to muscle his way over the gain line while Lealiifano's greatest strengths lie in his distribution skills and accurate kicking. Both are key components of their respective side's attack, but with very different roles.
2013: Brumbies won 23-20 in Canberra
2012: Bulls won 36-34 in Pretoria
2010: Bulls won 50-32 in Pretoria
2009: Brumbies won 31-32 in Canberra
2008: Bulls won 28-17 in Pretoria
2007: Bulls won 19-7 in Canberra
2006: Brumbies won 21-27 in Pretoria
2005: Brumbies won 19-21 in Canberra
2004: Bulls won 32-21 in Pretoria
Prediction: Neither side has been in particularly impressive form of late and the Bulls will be especially concerned with the way they were outclassed by the Stormers a fortnight ago. The hosts' record on home soil cannot be ignored however and combined with the Brumbies long voyage across the Indian Ocean, it's hard not to back die Bulle. Bulls to win by nine points.