Preview: Bulls v Sharks

Date published: February 27 2015

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The Bulls will be desperate to get their first win of the Super Rugby season when they host the Sharks in Pretoria on Saturday.

You would have been hard-pressed to find takers for a bet on the Bulls kicking off their season with back-to-back losses at home, especially considering they were unbeaten at Loftus Versfeld last year.

But – unthinkably just a fortnight ago – suffering three straight home defeats is a very real possibility as the three-time champs face a Sharks side that impressed in dismal conditions last week.

What will be most worrying for Bulls fans is the lack of bite in their once-feared pack. The return of Bismarck du Plessis was enough to reignited the Sharks' intensity against the Lions after their false start at home to the Cheetahs. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for Pierre Spies, who made very little impact in his first start against the Hurricanes.

Tellingly, the Bulls have conceded the most turnovers so far (34) in the competition. Coughing up possession so easily means they are unable to build pressure via keeping the ball through phases in opposition territory, which is the very basis of their philosophy.

If the Bulls can't sort out their breakdown and their shaky scrum, they won't finish in the top half of the table this year.

The Sharks have had their own breakdown issues, giving up 33 turnovers so far this season.

The Bulls last lost their first three games of the season in 2005 – a repeat will surely end any title aspiration they harbour.

"We have lost to ourselves as much as our opponents so far. We need to eliminate the soft moments from our game and make sure we execute. It is going to be a tough battle, a typical local derby, but we are ready for this challenge," said Spies.

The last time these team met: It went right down to the wire the last time the Sharks were at Loftus, in Round 6 of Super Rugby 2014. The Bulls outscored their visitors two tries to one, but were ahead by just a single point with a minute to play before Handré Pollard slotted a penalty to secure the Bulls a 23-19 victory.

Players to watch: It's seems the latest trend in the South African press is to have a go at 37-year-old Victor Matfield, who has been a bit off the pace. His battle with the man earmarked as the heir to the Springbok number 5 jersey, Pieter Steph du Toit, will be one to watch. Also keep an eye on Lappies Labuschagne has made the most tackles so far this Super Rugby season (38/39) as he takes on the in-form flank in South Africa, Marcell Coetzee. Likewise, we'll see a head-to-head battle between the contenders for the Springbok fly-half berth between the Handré Pollard and Patrick Lambie

Team news: Bulls coach Frans Ludeke handed scrum-half Rudy Paige a first Super Rugby start in the only change from the starting XV that came up short against the Hurricanes last weekend. The Sharks have made two changes to the side that beat the Lions Springbok loose forward Ryan Kankowski comes in for Tera Mtembu at Number eight. Former Baby Bok Andre Esterhuizen replaces Heimar Williams at inside centre.

Form: The Bulls lost both their games on home soil this season, going down 29-17 to the Stormers before being edged 17-13 by the Hurricanes. The Sharks bounced back from a 35-29 loss at home to the Cheetahs in Round 1 with a 29-12, bonus-point win over the Lions last week.

Predictions: The Bulls are the only South African team to hold a positive win/loss record over the Sharks (W13 D2 L9). The Bulls have won seven of these teams' last 10 clashes but their last 12 wins over the Sharks have been by single-figure margins. Another tight one is on the cards, and with rain forecast, it could go either way. Bulls by less than seven.

Previous results:
2014: Bulls won 23-19 in Pretoria
2014: Sharks won 31-16 in Durban
2013: Bulls won 20-19 in Pretoria
2013: Bulls won 18-16 in Durban
2012: Sharks won 32-10 in Durban
2012: Bulls won 18-13 in Pretoria

The teams:

Bulls: 15 Jesse Kriel, 14 Bjorn Basson, 13 JJ Engelbrecht, 12 Jan Serfontein, 11 Francois Hougaard, 10 Handré Pollard, 9 Rudy Paige, 8 Pierre Spies (c), 7 Pieter Labuschagne, 6 Deon Stegmann, 5 Victor Matfield, 4 Jacques du Plessis, 3 Trevor Nyakane, 2 Adriaan Strauss, 1 Morné Mellett.
Replacements: 16 Callie Visagie, 17 Dean Greyling, 18 Marcel van der Merwe, 19 Grant Hattingh, 20 Hanro Liebenberg, 21 Tian Schoeman, 22 Travis Ismaiel, 23 Jurgen Visser.

Sharks: 15 SP Marais, 14 Odwa Ndungane, 13 Waylon Murray, 12 Andre Esterhuizen, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Patrick Lambie, 9 Cobus Reinach, 8 Ryan Kankowski, 7 Renaldo Bothma, 6 Marcell Coetzee, 5 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 4 Lubabalo Mtyanda, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Bismarck du Plessis (c), 1 Dale Chadwick
Replacements: 16 Kyle Cooper, 17 Thomas du Toit, 18 Lourens Adriaanse, 19 Marco Wentzel, 20 Jean Deysel, 21 Conrad Hoffmann, 22 Fred Zeilinga/Lionel Cronje, 23 Jack Wilson

Date: Saturday, February 28
Venue: Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria
Kick-off: 17.05 local (15.05 GMT)
Referee: Jaco van Heerden (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Rohan Hoffmann (Australia), Ben Crouse (South Africa)
TMO: Johan Greeff (South Africa)

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