The final match of Round 8 in Super Rugby this weekend sees the Jaguares head to Loftus to take on the Bulls.
Head coach Nollis Marais has quite rightly come under fire throughout the week after that 21-20 loss to the Sunwolves in Tokyo, when the Bulls couldn’t find a way around the Sunwolves’ rush defence.
Naturally the coach of the three-time champions has been heavily criticised this week, as have the players, with the big question being whether the right person is at the helm to get the best out of a clearly talented group of players who are underperforming.
Comprehensively seeing off the Jaguares would go some way to dressing that wound but the Argentine franchise are a tougher nut to crack in 2017, even if indiscipline continues to be an issue.
Quite simply the Bulls have to win if they have any hope of catching up with the Stormers in Africa 1, who are yards clear, but the return of Handré Pollard is a certain plus.
Are the Jaguares capable of an upset? The rotation to his starting XV from Raul Pérez illustrates how much depth the Jaguares have at the disposal, with hard-running Rodrigo Baez coming into the back row.
Last weekend’s defeat in Durban showed the Jaguares at their best and worst, from the searing break by Matías Orlando in the build-up to try, contrasted with rare soft defence when André Esterhuizen scored along with the try-scoring strip by Cobus Reinach on Pablo Matera.
Picking up a losing bonus point was worth something but the Jaguares could have taken the win. One week on, it is far from outlandish to back them as favourites in Pretoria.
The last time these teams met: Jaguares captain Agustín Creevy bagged two tries as the Argentine franchise defeated the Bulls 29-11 in Buenos Aires last July. Pablo Matera was the home side’s other scorer as Nicolás Sánchez scored four penalties, with the Bulls’ only score coming from scrum-half Piet van Zyl.
Players to watch: When the heat was turned up towards the end in Tokyo the Bulls desperately needed some direction at half-back to get themselves more territory, which is why Handré Pollard was so sorely missed. The Springbok is yet to show his best form since returning from injury but he is some talent, who needs to stand up tall against a physical Jaguares back row and midfield at Loftus.
As for the visitors this feels like a fixture destined to hinge on the scrum, which makes Ramiro Herrera’s input at tighthead prop all the more important for the Jaguares. The Argentina international has started the year in fine form and will fancy his chances up against the young Bulls loosehead Pierre Schoeman. Herrera never shys away from a tackle either.
Team news: Bulls regulars Handré Pollard and Jesse Kriel are back in the starting XV. They replace Tian Schoeman and Warrick Gelant, who revert to the bench. Coach Nollis Marais not only welcomes back two of his international players, but also has a fit Lood de Jager available. De Jager missed the Tokyo match due to injury, but the former SA Rugby Player of the Year is back to full fitness and replaces Jason Jenkins, who moves down to the bench. Piet van Zyl, who also missed out on Sunwolves selection due to injury, is fit again and the third change to the backline. He comes in for Rudy Paige at scrum-half. Up front, Pierre Schoeman will start at loosehead for the fourth time this season, replacing Lizo Gqoboka.
Jaguares coach Raul Perez has made five changes to his side. In the forwards, there is a forced change in the number four position as the injured Matias Alemanno makes way for Guido Petti. Rodrigo Baez replaces Tomás Lezana at blindside flank, with Lezana taking his place on the substitute’s bench. In the crucial fly-half position, Santiago González Iglesias takes the place of Nicolás Sánchez. Emiliano Boffelli and Santiago Cordero replace Bautista Ezcurra and Ramiro Moyano on the wings.
Form: The Bulls have won their last seven games at home to teams visiting from outside South Africa, winning by an average margin of 19 points in that period. The Jaguares have won five of their last seven games against South African opposition (L2), and have taken a losing bonus point from both defeats in that run. The Argentine squad are the only team in the competition yet to concede a try when their opponent has begun possession with a scrum.
Prediction: This feels like a fixture that Jaguares would have lost last year, but in 2017? The Argentine franchise have made enough strides to knock off the Bulls and put themselves in the play-off picture. Jaguares by five.
2016: Jaguares won 29-11 in Buenos Aires
Bulls: 15 Jesse Kriel, 14 Travis Ismaiel, 13 Jan Serfontein, 12 Burger Odendaal, 11 Jamba Ulengo, 10 Handré Pollard, 9 Piet van Zyl, 8 Hanro Liebenberg, 7 Jannes Kirsten, 6 Nick de Jager, 5 Lood de Jager, 4 RG Snyman, 3 Trevor Nyakane, 2 Adriaan Strauss, 1 Pierre Schoeman
Replacements: 16 Jaco Visagie, 17 Lizo Gqoboka, 18 Martin Dreyer, 19 Jason Jenkins, 20 Marnus Schoeman, 21 Rudy Paige, 22 Tian Schoeman, 23 Warrick Gelant
Jaguares: 15 Joaquín Tuculet, 14 Santiago Cordero, 13 Matías Orlando, 12 Jerónimo de la Fuente, 11 Emiliano Boffelli, 10 Santiago González Iglesias , 9 Gonzalo Bertranou, 8 Leonardo Senatore, 7 Rodrigo Baez, 6 Pablo Matera, 5 Marcos Kremer, 4 Guido Petti, 3 Ramiro Herrera, 2 Agustín Creevy (c), 1 Lucas Noguera Paz
Replacements: 16 Roberto Tejerizo, 17 Santiago García Botta, 18 Enrique Pieretto, 19 Benjamin Macome, 20 Tomás Lezana, 21 Felipe Ezcurra, 22 Nicolás Sánchez, 23 Ramiro Moyano
Date: Saturday, April 15
Venue: Loftus Versfeld
Kick-off: 19:30 local (17:30 GMT)
Referee: Ben O’Keeffe
Assistant Referees: Angus Gardner, Egon Seconds
TMO: Willie Vos
Photo credit: Pablo Gasparini/Gaspafotos/Jaguares