Preview: Bulls v Sharks

Date published: March 17 2016

The Sharks face an uncomfortably short turnaround as they travel to Loftus Versfeld for a Super Rugby showdown with the Bulls on Friday.

Having come out on top in an incredibly bruising clash against the Stormers last weekend, the task of facing a Bulls outfit fresh from a bye week is without doubt a tough one for the South African group leaders.

Indeed, the 2016 draw has been anything but favourable for the Sharks, who face a rough mid-season ride.

But so far, so good for Gary Gold's men. As one of only two unbeaten teams left in the competition, it could hardly have gone better for the Durbanites, with back-to-back victories over two of the strongest teams in their group suggesting that they are a decent bet for a quarter-final berth. 

It's early days yet, but another win on the road will set them up very nicely. 

Tactically, the Sharks have got it spot-on so far. Their performance against the Jaguares was far from perfect but they got the job done and managed to cut out a lot of those errors a week later in Cape Town, where their superior tactical kicking game played a major role in what could be crucial victory in the grand scheme of the season.

A trip to Loftus, where the Sharks have not won since 2011, represent a significant challenge however. The Bulls have won nine of their last 12 matches against the Sharks, including their last three, although at no point in that span has the winning margin been more than nine points.

It seems much will depend on how the hosts perform in the second half. The Bulls remain the only team in the competition yet to concede a first half try so far this season. 

But they buckled badly after the break against the Stormers and leaked four answered tries against the Rebels having dominated the opening 40 minutes.

Bulls coach Nollis Marais said maintaining their intensity for all 80 minutes had been the focus of their bye-week training. 

How that second half pans out is likely to depend largely on who wins the tactical kicking battle, which is always vital when playing at altitude. Veteran scrum-half Michael Claassens will make his first start of the season and his experience and strong kicking game alongside Joe Pietersen in their battle with Francois Brummer and Rudy Paige will be influential.

However, most important for the Bulls will be their ability to keep tabs on Marcell Coetzee, who has been in phenomenal form, and will spearhead the Sharks challenge at the breakdown. 

The last time these teams met: The Bulls won 17-10 in a tense encounter at Kings Park midway through the 2015 season. The teams scored a try apiece but it was Springbok fly-half Handre Pollard's boot that proved the difference. Pollard slotted four penalties, while phis opposite number Fred Zeilinga managed one conversion and secured only one penalty out of three attempts.

Players to watch: Former SA Sevens flyer Jamba Ulengo will make his Super Rugby debut. The hard-running Ulengo, who scored 11 tries in 11 matches for the Blue Bulls in last year’s Currie Cup. In preseason, this game had been billed as a clash of the Springbok fly-halves but with both team missing their first-choice playmakers, Sharks pivot Joe Pietersen could hold the keys to the result. He has kicked 14 goals so far this season, the third most of any player and the most of any South African in the competition.

Team news: Ulengo's inclusion is the only change to the Bulls starting backline and replaces Trevor Ismaiel on the right wing. South Africa's Young Player of the Year, Jesse Kriel returns from injury via the bench. Amongst the forwards, Roelof Smit will start at openside with Nic de Jager dropping to the bench.

For the Sharks, flanker Jean-Luc du Preez misses out after suffering a minor foot injury against the Stormers, with Philip van der Walt promoted to the starting line-up. Front rowers Lourens Adriaanse and Kyle Cooper get their first starts of the season, as does scrum-half Michael Claassens, while Lwazi Mvovo comes back into the side. Loose forward Keegan Daniel also makes his return to the squad on the bench. 

Form: After snapping a six-game losing streak with a 45-25 win over the Rebels in Round 2 the Bulls will be looking to secure back-to-back wins in Super Rugby for the first time since Round 10 last season, which was their last encounter with the Sharks. The Sharks have tied together six wins on the trot and a seventh win would see the streak extend to their longest in Super Rugby since they won eight in a row across the 2006 and 2007 seasons. They beat the Stormers 18-13 in Cape Town last week. 

Prediction: a tough one to call, by history is on the hosts' side and given the Sharks' short turnaround, it's fair to back the Bulls by less than seven points.

Previous results: 
2015: Bulls won 17-10 in Durban        
2015: Bulls won 43-35 in Pretoria        
2014: Bulls won 23-19 in Pretoria        
2014: Sharks won 16-31 in Durban        
2013: Bulls won 20-19 in Pretoria        
2013: Bulls won 18-16 in Durban        
2012: Sharks won 10-32 in Durban        
2012: Bulls won 18-13 in Pretoria    

The teams:

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

Sharks: 15 Willie Le Roux, 14 JP Pietersen, 13 Paul Jordaan, 12 Andre Esterhuizen, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Joe Pietersen, 9 Michael Claassens, 8 Daniel du Preez, 7 Philip van der Walt, 6 Marcell Coetzee, 5 Stephan Lewies, 4 Etienne Oosthuizen, 3 Lourens Adriaanse, 2 Kyle Cooper, 1 Tendai Mtawarira (c)
Replacements: 16 Franco Marais, 17 Juan Schoeman, 18 Coenie Oosthuizen, 19 Hyron Andrews, 20 Keegan Daniel, 21 Cobus Reinach, 22 Garth April, 23 Odwa Ndungane

Date: Friday, March 18
Venue: Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria
Kick-off: 19:00 local (17:00 GMT)
Referee: Glen Jackson
Assistant Referees: Stuart Berry, Rasta Rasivhenge
TMO: Willie Vos