Preview: Bulls v Rebels

Date published: March 4 2016

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Bulls coach Nollis Marais says the Rebels are the favourites for Saturday's Super Rugby clash in Pretoria. Don't believe him.

The Bulls underdogs? At Loftus? Against the Rebels? Surely not!?

To be fair on the good Mr. Marais, the Rebels did win – just – the last time these teams met, in Melbourne last year. They also got their campaign off to a winning start against the Force last week, outscoring their fellow Aussies three tries to none.

It's true also that the Bulls are winless in their last six matches, their longest losing streak since 2002.

And things didn't exactly go to plan for the Bulls at Newlands last week either, but the day the three-time champions are considered underdogs against the Rebels on home soil is surely some way off.

Yes, this is a young Bulls side, and yes, they struggled in the lineouts and scrums in Round 1, but the Rebels shipped over 40 points in both their previous visits to Pretoria. They've yet to win a game on South African soil in ten attempts. 

The Bulls' set-piece issues should be seen in context too. The Stormers' have one of the best tight-fives in the tournament and an impressive set of front row replacements. Marais has shown some faith by naming an unchanged pack and an improvement should be expected. It'll be key to giving an exciting-looking Bulls backline decent platform. 

The loss of Springbok Jesse Kriel to concussion is a blow, but his replacement, Burger Odendaal, has looked very sharp.

The Rebels have had a couple of injury disruptions too but a good win on the road last weekend will have given them some confidence.

The Rebels won 15 turnovers in their opening game, more than any other side in the opening round, which points to a potentially pivotal battle of the loose forwards. 

With the Loftus faithful expecting a turnaround from last week's horror start, all the pressure is on the home side.

The last time these teams met: The Rebels earned a hard-fought 21-20 victory at home in Round 17 last year, ending the Bulls overseas tour on a negative note. Rebels outscored their visitors by three tries to two with Sean McMahon, Jack Debreczeni and Lopeti Timani crossing the whitewash for the home side. Dean Greyling and Lappies Labuschagne scored for the Bulls but Odendaal was denied what would have been the winner by the TMO. 

Players to watch: Bulls flank Jannes Kirsten made 18 tackles in the opening round, the second most of any player behind Michael Hooper (21) and the most of any player who didn’t miss a single tackle. He'll be looked to back that up with another outing in the Bulls' back row this week.

Rebels full-back Reece Hodge made a dream debut a week ago, scoring 20 points, including two tries. Hodge is back in the 15 shirt for the visit to Pretoria but may relinquish the goalkicking duties to returning number ten Debreczeni.

Team news: Marais has made only one personnel change to his starting team with centre Burger Odendaal replacing Springbok Jesse Kriel, who has been ruled out due to concussion. Dries Swanepoel will make his debut off the bench. If Grant Hattingh passes a late fitness test, he'll earn his 50th Super Rugby cap. 

The Rebels have been forced into tow changes following injuries to Mike Harris and Colby Fainga'a. Jack Debreczeni takes over at fly-half while Steve Cummins comes into the second row, moving Lopeti Timani to number eight.

Form: The average score between these sides is 37-18. After a 25-19 away victory against the Force in their first match the Rebels will be looking to open a Super Rugby season with back-to-back victories for the first time in their history. The Bulls were outscored three tries to nil in their 33-9 loss to the Stormers last week.

Predictions: The history books point to a clear win for the Bulls. The gap will no doubt be significantly smaller than in the past, and it's fair to back the Bulls to win by twelve points

Previous results: 

2015: Rebels won 21-20 in Melbourne
2014: Bulls  won 40-7 in Pretoria
2012: Bulls  won 41-35 in Melbourne
2011: Bulls  won 47-10 in Pretoria

The teams:

Bulls: 15 Warrick Gelant, 14 Travis Ismaiel, 13 Jan Serfontein, 12 Burger Odendaal, 11 Bjorn Basson 10 Francois Brummer, 9 Rudy Paige, 8 Arno Botha, 7 Jannes Kirsten, 6 Nic de Jager, 5 Grant Hattingh, 4 RG Snyman, 3 Marcel van der Merwe, 2 Adriaan Strauss, 1 Trevor Nyakane.
Replacements: 16 Jaco Visagie, 17 Lizo Gqoboka, 18 Hencus van Wyk, 19 Jason Jenkins, 20 Roelof Smit, 21 Piet van Zyl, 22 Tian Schoeman, 23 Dries Swanepoel

Melbourne Rebels: 15 Reece Hodge, 14 Dom Shipperley, 13 Tamati Ellison, 12 Mitch Inman, 11 Tom English, 10 Jack Debreczeni, 9 Ben Meehan, 8 Lopeti Timani, 7 Sean McMahon (c), 6 Adam Thomson, 5 Steve Cummins, 4 Luke Jones, 3 Laurie Weeks, 2 James Hanson, 1 Toby Smith.
Replacements: 16 Pat Leafa, 17 Cruze Ah Nau, 18 Jamie Hagan, 19 Sam Jeffries, 20 Jordy Reid, 21 Mick Snowden, 22 Jonah Placid, 23 Dan Hawkins.

Date: Saturday, March 5
Venue: Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria
Kick-off: 15:00 local (13:00 GMT)
Referee: Ben O'Keeffe (New Zealand)
Assistant Referees: Mike Fraser (New Zealand), Stuart Berry (South Africa)
TMO: Marius Jonker (South Africa)

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