Top spot in the Africa 1 Conference is on the line at Loftus Versfeld this Saturday when the Bulls take on the Stormers.
Home advantage will be so vital by the time the quarter-finals roll around and the Bulls have a real chance to leapfrog the current leaders, despite their sizeable defeat at the hands of the Waratahs in Sydney last weekend.
One fact though lies in their favour – the Bulls are the only team in the competition who are still undefeated at home, having won three and drawn one.
Nollis Marais is enjoying a quietly productive first year in charge, after all the Bulls have only lost three of their ten matches, and they have handled the season-crippling loss of Handré Pollard with aplomb.
There is still plenty of work to do though in attack, despite a strong defence. The Bulls have conceded just 6.8 clean breaks and 6.5 offloads per game, the fewest of any team in the competition in both categories, while they have also missed the fewest tackles per game this season (13.7).
Jan Serfontein’s form has been so strong that he must be at the forefront of Allister Coetzee’s plans for the Test series against Ireland.
Youth has been the key and with each passing week those stars of the future, especially the two locks Jason Jenkins and RG Snyman, are catching the eye.
What a threat those two face this weekend however against the reunited Eben Etzebeth and Pieter-Steph du Toit. No player has stolen more lineouts than Stormers’ pair with nine (Etzebeth) and seven (Du Toit) so far this season.
Etzebeth returns just at the right time after the Stormers’ awful performance in Singapore, when only Du Toit came away with his integrity intact.
The Stormers were lucky to get a draw and since the start of April they have only picked up one win in four matches, over the Reds in Cape Town.
Their recent record against the Bulls makes for happier reading. The Stormers have won their last four games against the Bulls; a fifth straight win would be their longest in the history of this fixture.
Robbie Fleck’s job this week will have been to shake his side out of their slow return from a Round 11 bye week, as the Stormers head to Pretoria looking to protect and build on their three-point lead over the Bulls at the top of Africa 1.
The last time these teams met: Back on the first day of the season the Stormers took a while to get going but eventually brushed off the Bulls with an impressive 33-9 win at Newlands. New fly-half Robert du Preez scored the opening try and kicked 18 points, with Eben Etzebeth and Scarra Ntubeni also crossing.
Players to watch: Back in at fly-half for the Bulls is Francois Brummer in place of Tian Schoeman and has emerged as the steadier option of the two number 10s tasked with filling the void left by Pollard. Combining the tactical kicking of Brummer with the Bulls’ pack can give the Bulls a chance, but they’ve also shown that when they do want to get the backs firing what they can do with the ball in hand, and Brummer plays a key role in that.
Meanwhile it’s a 50th Super Rugby game for Damian de Allende, who at 24 still has plenty of years to come with the Stormers where he already stands out as a senior player based on his exploits with the Springboks. Injury disrupted his season early on but with Serfontein in form this would appear an ideal moment for De Allende to produce his best rugby.
Team news: Bulls coach Nollis Marais made four changes to his starting team. Marais named Travis Ismaiel (wing), Francois Brummer (fly-half), Piet van Zyl (scrum-half) and Arno Botha in the team, with Grant Hattingh fit again and included on the bench. Hattingh last played for the team in the Super Rugby competition in April, but has recovered from the injury that kept him on the sidelines.
De Allende will link up with Johnny Kotze in midfield for the Stormers with co-captain Juan de Jongh sidelined due to a hamstring strain, while Leolin Zas returns from suspension to take Kotze’s place on the wing. The only other change to the backline which started against the Suunwolves in Singapore sees scrum-half Nic Groom trade places with Louis Schreuder who starts on the replacements bench. In the loose trio Schalk Burger will start at number eight, with Nizaam Carr shifting to flank and Rynhardt Elstadt moving to the replacements bench. There are two changes in the front-row with Oli Kebble starting at loosehead prop in place of the injured JC Janse van Rensburg and Bongi Mbonambi getting an opportunity to start at hooker with Scarra Ntubeni set to make an impact from the replacements bench.
Form: Consecutive losses on the road in Australia to the Brumbies and Waratahs ended the Bulls’ five-game winning streak but as previously mentioned, their home form is excellent this season with three wins our of four. The Stormers meanwhile won five of their first six matches before hitting their current rut, with losses to the Lions and Waratahs coming before last week’s draw away to the Sunwolves.
Prediction: Factoring in the Stormers’ patchy form, this looks like the moment for the Bulls to strike. Bulls by five.
2016: Stormers won 33-9 in Cape Town
2015: Stormers won 15-13 in Cape Town
2015: Stormers won 29-17 in Pretoria
2014: Stormers won 16-0 in Cape Town
2014: Bulls won 28-12 in Pretoria
2013: Stormers won 30-13 in Cape Town
2013: Bulls won 25-17 in Pretoria
2012: Stormers won 19-14 in Pretoria
Bulls: 15 SP Marais, 14 Jamba Ulengo, 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 Jan Serfontein, 11 Travis Ismaiel, 10 Francois Brummer, 9 Piet van Zyl, 8 Arno Botha, 7 Jannes Kirsten, 6 Lappies Labuschagne, 5 RG Snyman, 4 Jason Jenkins, 3 Marcel van der Merwe, 2 Adriaan Strauss, 1 Lizo Gqoboka
Replacements: 16 Jaco Visagie, 17 Trevor Nyakane, 18 Pierre Schoeman, 19 Grant Hattingh, 20 Deon Stegmann, 21 Rudy Paige, 22 Tian Schoeman, 23 Dries Swanepoel
Stormers: 15 Cheslin Kolbe, 14 Kobus van Wyk, 13 Johnny Kotze, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Leolin Zas, 10 Jean-Luc du Plessis, 9 Nic Groom, 8 Schalk Burger, 7 Siya Kolisi, 6 Nizaam Carr, 5 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Frans Malherbe (c), 2 Bongi Mbonambi, 1 Oli Kebble
Replacements: 16 Scarra Ntubeni, 17 Alistair Vermaak, 18 Vincent Koch, 19 Rynhardt Elstadt, 20 Sikhumbuzo Notshe, 21 Louis Schreuder, 22 Brandon Thomson, 23 Huw Jones
Date: Saturday, May 21
Venue: Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria
Kick-off: 19:20 local (17:20 GMT)
Referee: Ben O’Keeffe
Assistant Referees: Glen Jackson, AJ Jacobs
TMO: Johan Greeff