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Preview: Bulls v Highlanders

17th May 2013 08:09

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Colin Slade

Wayward kicking: Colin Slade

A win at the Bulls' fortress of Loftus Versveld is not something many teams can claim to have achieved in recent years, particularly those from foreign shores, but the Highlanders do have this feather in their cap.

Indeed, they have recorded back-to-back wins against the Bulls, first at Loftus in 2011 when they notched up four tries on their way to a 35-28 victory and then again last season when they edged out the Bulls 16-11 in Dunedin. Unfortunately for the Highlanders, that is where the pleasant reading ends.

Jamie Joseph's men have endured a horror season that has seen them win just one match. Far too often the Highlanders have showed glimpses of class but have either not been able to deliver a sustained performance or have made costly decisions in tight matches. Whether it be allowing the Cheetahs to run out to a 30-point cushion or let a 27-12 lead over the Chiefs end in a 41-27 loss, all too often the Highlanders just haven't been at the races.

Last week's 34-27 defeat at the hands of the Kings will be of particular disappointment as it appeared that they may just be righting the ship after picking up a win over the Sharks.

The men from Otago have been disappointing in most areas save the back three, with Colin Slade's solid general play offset by poor goal-kicking and a front-row boasting a mass of experience often not asserting themselves.

Both Slade and the forward pack will need to be on their game if they are to have any chance against the Bulls. Like all South African teams the Bulls are a physical bunch, with the Pretoria outfit perhaps leading the way in these stakes. If the Highlanders cannot put a dent in the Bulls forward charge then the game will by one of damage limitation from the first whistle.

The Highlanders are all too wary of the power of the Bulls at set pieces so don't be surprised to see Slade and Aaron Smith looking for space rather than touch come Saturday as Joseph's troops look to counter the Bulls physical, structured game with some running rugby.

The Bulls come into the game on the back of a bye and skipper Pierre Spies, who will be making his 100th appearance for the franchise, has spoken of being wary of the impact this will have. Even if they aren't firing at full pace from the outset, one can't imagine the Bulls being off the boil to an extent that would allow the Highlanders into the contest. Indeed, there is too much on the line for the Bulls to lose their focus.

A loss could see them slip from being top of the South African conference to out of the play-off spots completely and with the congested nature of the table, there really is little room for error.

The hosts have been boosted by the return of mercurial scrum-half Francois Hougaard who replaces the in-form Jano Vermaark while young gun Jan Serfontein slots in at centre having recovered from injury.

Prediction: The Bulls will have too much in the tank for the Highlanders. Bulls by 12.

The teams:

Bulls: 15 Jürgen Visser, 14 Akona Ndungane, 13 JJ Engelbrecht, 12 Jan Serfontein, 11 Lionel Mapoe, 10 Morné Steyn, 9 Francois Hougaard, 8 Pierre Spies (c), 7 Dewald Potgieter, 6 Deon Stegmann, 5 Juandré Kruger, 4 Flip van der Merwe, 3 Frik Kirsten, 2 Chiliboy Ralepelle, 1 Morné Mellet.
Replacements: 16 Callie Visagie, 17 Werner Kruger, 18 Grant Hattingh, 19 Arno Botha, 20 Jano Vermaak, 21 Louis Fouchè, 22 Bjorn Basson.

Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith, 14 Tino Nemani, 13 Tamati Ellison, 12 Shaun Treeby, 11 Hosea Gear, 10 Colin Slade, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Mose Tuiali'i, 7 John Hardie, 6 Joe Wheeler, 5 Jarrad Hoeata, 4 Brad Thorn, 3 Chris King, 2 Andrew Hore (c), 1 Jamie Mackintosh.
Replacements: 16 Liam Coltman, 17 Tony Woodcock, 18 Elliot Dixon, 19 TJ Ioane, 20 Fumiaki Tanaka, 21 Hayden Parker, 22 Jason Emery.

Date: Saturday, May 18
Kick-off: 17:05 local (16:05 BST, 15:05 GMT)
Venue: Loftus Versfeld
Referee: Jaco Peyper (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Ben Crouse (South Africa), Stefan Breytenbach (South Africa)
Television match official: Shaun Veldsman (South Africa)

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PosTeamPPts
1Sharks727
2Bulls717
3Lions816
4Cheetahs89
5Stormers66