Both the Sunwolves and the Bulls will be desperate for victory when they face off against each other in Tokyo on Saturday.
These two sides have won just one match out of a possible 10 played so far and that victory was registered by the Bulls when these sides met in Pretoria three weeks ago.
Despite being winless, the Sunwolves have shown improvement as the tournament has progressed and delivered a competitive performance in their previous match – a 44-31 loss to the Stormers in Singapore in Round Five.
Head coach Filo Tiatia has made several changes to his matchday 23, with the biggest surprise being the selection of Timothy Lafaele as the new captain after regular skipper Ed Quirk was ruled out through injury.
Tiatia is confident Lafaele will give a good account of himself in the leadership role.
“I am delighted to name Timothy Lafaele as the game captain of the Sunwolves for this Saturday,” he told the Japan Times.
“Tim has grown into his leadership role and is well deserved of his place.”
The Bulls have had a rough ride in recent weeks and head into this fixture after suffering losses to the Blues and Chiefs on the New Zealand leg of their overseas tour.
But despite those results, Bulls head coach Nollis Marais was adamant that his side will not let their heads drop.
“We showed massive improvement against the Chiefs and I am pleased with that,” he said.
“We always knew how difficult this tour would be, but with all the injuries, it proved even tougher than expected. A win over the Sunwolves is no given, but if we continue the upward trend shown in New Zealand, we will be in with a serious chance to win,” he said.
The coach is aware of the huge amount of travelling his team had to do, but feels this is not detrimental.
“The Sunwolves have to travel a lot as well and as they have shown when they last played us and the Cheetahs, this should not be a burden if managed properly.”
Bulls captain Adriaan Strauss is relishing the prospect of taking on the Sunwolves in what is unknown territory to the three-time champions.
“This will be another new venue for us, but at least we know what to expect from the Sunwolves,” he said.
“They will play with passion and pace, something we will need to match if we want to return home with a win under the belt.”
The last time the teams met: The Bulls ran out 34-21 winners when these sides clashed in Pretoria in Round 4. This, despite playing the entire second half with 14 men after Renaldo Bothma was red carded. The home side led 17-14 at half-time and only took control of proceedings after Bothma’s exit. Jan Serfontein led the way for the Bulls with a brace of tries and Tian Schoeman and Jason Jenkins also dotted down. Kenki Fukuoka and Ed Quirk scored the Sunwolves’ tries.
Players to watch: There will be plenty of pressure on the shoulders of the Sunwolves’ new skipper Timothy Lafaele. The Samoan-born, Japanese international has caught the eye with some impressive attacking performances and it will be interesting to see whether the captaincy will affect his style of play.
With regular pivot Handré Pollard being rested, all eyes will be on his replacement Tian Schoeman. Taking over from the Springbok is a huge ask but Schoeman has delivered some solid performances when coming off the replacements bench in previous matches this season. He will be expected to get the visitors on the front-foot with an assured allround display.
Team news: Sunwolves head coach Filo Tiatia has made several changes to his starting line-up. After last week’s bye, Kotaro Matsushima, Takaaki Nakazuru, Hayden Cripps and Fumiaki Tanaka all come into the backline. That quartet replace Jamie-Jerry Taulagi, Shota Emi, Jumpei Ogura and Keisuke Uchida respectively. In the forwards, Yasuo Yamaji comes in at tighthead prop in place of Heiichiro Ito, Uwe Helu replaces Sam Wykes at lock while Rahboni Warren Vosayaco, Shuhei Matsuhashi and Yoshitaka Tokunaga form a new-look back row, replacing Willie Britz, Shokei Kin and Ed Quirk respectively.
Bulls coach Nollis Marais gives starts to Tian Schoeman and Jannes Kirsten for the first time this season. Schoeman will start in place of Handré Pollard, who along with Jesse Kriel, are being rested as part of the SA Rugby agreement. Kriel’s spot at full-back goes to Warrick Gelant. Up front, Kirsten will start in place of injured Ruan Steenkamp, Hanro Liebenberg returns at number eight and takes over from injured Arno Botha and Jason Jenkins will partner RG Snyman at lock, with Lood de Jager falling out the match 23 with a quad strain. Martin Dreyer, who replaced John-Roy Jenkinson on tour, will take over from Jacobie Adriaanse on the bench, while Jacques Potgieter, Ivan van Zyl and Franco Naude, who also arrived from South Africa earlier in the week, will all play off the bench. Potgieter has been named the back-up lock, Van Zyl will cover for the injured Piet van Zyl and Naude will cover the midfield and outside backs. Francois Brummer, who joined the team in New Zealand already, will back-up Schoeman.
Form: The Bulls’ campaign started with back-to-back derby defeats to the Stormers (37-24) and Cheetahs (34-28) before they claimed a 34-21 win over the Sunwolves in the corresponding fixture in Round 4. They then headed to New Zealand but suffered losses to the Blues (38-18) and Chiefs (28-12).
The Sunwolves made a disastrous start, suffering a humiliating 83-17 loss to the Hurricanes in their opener in Tokyo. After that, there were further defeats to the Kings (37-23), Cheetahs (38-31), Bulls (34-21) and Stormers (44-31).
Prediction: Although the Sunwolves will have home ground advantage, the visitors have too much class across the park. It won’t be easy but the Bulls will win by seven points.
2017: Bulls won 34-21 in Pretoria
2016: Bulls won 50-3 in Pretoria
2016: Bulls won 30-27 in Singapore
Sunwolves: 15 Kotaro Matsushima, 14 Takaaki Nakazuru, 13 Timothy Lafaele, 12 Derek Carpenter, 11 Kenki Fukuoka, 10 Hayden Cripps, 9 Fumiaki Tanaka, 8 Rahboni Warren Vosayaco, 7 Shuhei Matsuhashi, 6 Yoshitaka Tokunaga, 5 Uwe Helu, 4 Liaki Moli, 3 Yasuo Yamaji, 2 Yusuke Niwai, 1 Koki Yamamoto
Replacements: 16 Takeshi Kizu, 17 Keita Inagaki, 18 Heiichiro Ito, 19 Sam Wykes, 20 Shunsuke Nunomaki, 21 Yuki Yatomi, 22 Yu Tamura, 23 Ryohei Yamanaka
Bulls: 15 Warrick Gelant, 14 Travis Ismaiel, 13 Jan Serfontein, 12 Burger Odendaal, 11 Jamba Ulengo, 10 Tian Schoeman, 9 Rudy Paige, 8 Hanro Liebenberg, 7 Jannes Kirsten, 6 Nic de Jager, 5 RG Snyman, 4 Jason Jenkins, 3 Trevor Nyakane, 2 Adriaan Strauss, 1 Lizo Gqoboko
Replacements: 16 Edgar Marutlulle, 17 Pierre Schoeman, 18 Martin Dreyer, 19 Jaco Visagie/Hendré Stassen, 20 Jacques Potgieter, 21 Ivan van Zyl, 22 Francois Brummer, 23 Franco Naude
Date: Saturday, April 8
Venue: Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium, Tokyo
Kick-off: 14:15 local (05:15 GMT)
Referee: Will Houston (Australia)
Assistant Referees: Rohan Hoffmann (Australia), Akhiso Aso (Japan)
TMO: Minoru Fuji (Japan)