What will Jake White conjure up?
The Bulls will look to keep their perfect home play-off record intact when they play host to the Brumbies in Saturday’s Super Rugby semifinal in Pretoria.
The three-time champions are unbeaten in play-off games at Loftus Versfeld and are undefeated at their fortress this season.
Add to that the fact that they are on a 10-match winning streak in Pretoria and haven’t lost to the Brumbies on home soil since 2006 and it's clear why they are the favourites to book a Final berth.
The Brumbies, however, won’t care about any of this. They have re-established themselves as Australia’s premier franchise this season and will be fired up to no end as they make their first semifinal appearance since 2004, when they went all the way and clinched the last of their two titles.
They may have won just 37.5% of their away games against the Bulls, but the Brumbies vintage of 2013 are a tough match-up for the Pretoria outfit.
They have the pragmatic, cerebral style and set-piece prowess to trouble the tactically astute Bulls and have developed immensely as a unit since their narrow 34-36 defeat in their last visit to Loftus last year.
They outscored the Bulls by five tries to two that day but more significantly, the majority of the young squad got their first taste of playing inside the Pretoria pressure-cooker.
That experience will serve them well this weekend, when Loftus will be at its most daunting as finals rugby returns to the Jacaranda City.
The differentiating factor and the Canberra side’s greatest advantage, however, is the in-depth knowledge and understanding of South African and Bulls rugby possessed by coach Jake White.
South African-born White not only guided the Springboks to their second World Cup title in 2007, he also served as Bulls assistant coach in 1999.
He understands the culture and traditional strengths of the Bulls better than any other opposing coach and will look to use that Intel to move one step closer to adding another major title to his remarkable résumé.
While whether White will opt to fight fire with fire remains to be seen, Bulls mentor Frans Ludeke believes the similarities of the sides could lead to a tense, tactical battle.
“They play a lot like us - it is field position, a suffocate type of game,” said Ludeke.
"They are very good on defence, with a solid pack of forwards, and in broken field they have players that can finish off.
“The set-pieces will be vital and you have to control the broken field, and we will have to use the opportunities when we get there.”
Given that the Brumbies claimed a famous 14-12 victory over the British and Irish Lions with a Bulls-like strategy last month, White would certainly not lack conviction should he decide to take on the Bulls at their own game.
Playing a bit wider from the ruck in an attempt to stretch the Bulls’ big forwards would also be a justifiable approach. This uncertainty will keep Ludeke guessing as to which tactic White will employ while the Brumbies boss, in contrast, will know exactly what to expect.
The Bulls’ power-driven, territory-based brand is an open secret. It’s equally predictable as it is lethal when executed correctly, thus Ludeke is calling for accuracy from his charges.
“We would like to be accurate from the first minute to the last, and turnovers in a semifinal will be vital,” Ludeke said.
“We are playing against very good opposition and that is why they finished third in the competition [after the league phase] and they have a lot of strengths all-round.
“It is about getting in the right areas and setting up a good platform to launch a good attack, and it is all about being patient because we believe we've got the ability to score tries and to squeeze points when we are in the right area.”
Players to watch:
For the Bulls: Given the Bulls’ gameplan, Morné Steyn will have a more significant impact on the outcome of the match than any other player. His importance has been acknowledged by both camps as his decision-making coupled with his tactical and goal-kicking will likely be decisive. When Steyn fires, the Bulls fire, but when he’s not pinpoint accurate in his execution, the Bulls become their own worst enemy. Jan Serfontein and Zane Kirchner will both be out to prove a point to Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer, while JJ Engelbrecht will ask questions of the Brumbies defence with his blistering acceleration and hard-running. The experienced Flip van der Merwe will be the key man in the line-outs and the aggressive Dean Greyling will need to keep his discipline and hold up his side of the scrum, while Jano Vermaak will have an important role to play off the bench.
For the Brumbies: Christian Lealiifano has the unenviable task of taking on Steyn in a goal-kicking shootout at Loftus and will have to rise to the occasion. Jesse Mogg will have to prove he’s more than just an attacking threat with a dependable display under the high ball, while Clyde Rathbone will relish playing another crucial knock-out game in South Africa. Ben Alexander will spearhead the Brumbies scrum, while the imposing Fotu Auelua is sure to be unleashed in the second half.
Head to head: They may be wearing different numbers on their backs, but Deon Stegmann and George Smith will go toe to toe in the all-important battle at the breakdown. In a tight, low-scoring play-off a solitary, well-timed turnover can punch a team’s ticket to the Final and both of these men are top-level scavengers. How they play to the referee’s interpretations of the laws will be vital in maintaining possession, securing turnovers and keeping the penalty count to the bare minimum. The other key battle will be that of Francois Hougaard and Nic White. Hougaard’s average tactical-kicking was the main reason for him relinquishing the Springbok No.9 jersey to Ruan Pienaar last season. He now has the perfect opportunity to prove he can deliver in that department when the pressure is on. The visitors will turn to his opposite number to kick them into the right areas of the field. His tactical awareness and proficiency makes him a key cog in the Brumbies machine, but he’ll need his forwards to give him sufficient time to punish the Bulls from the base. There’s also the duel between hard-nosed international hookers Chiliboy Ralepelle and Stephen Moore, whose accuracy in the set pieces will be crucial, and the captains’ clash between Dewald Potgieter and Ben Mowen at No.8.
2013: Brumbies won 23-20, Canberra
2012: Bulls won 36-34, Pretoria
2010: Bulls won 50-32, Pretoria
2009: Brumbies won 32-31, Canberra
2008: Bulls won 28-17, Pretoria
2007: Bulls won 19-7, Canberra
2006: Brumbies won 27-21, Pretoria
Prediction: The Brumbies are handicapped in that by finishing the regular season in third place, they had to play the sixth-placed Cheetahs for a place in the final four last weekend and had to travel from Canberra to Pretoria. Having to overcome the Bulls at Loftus is difficult enough as it is, so to do so off the back of a physical play-off while being hampered by the travel factor will require a near-superhuman effort. Like in their previous encounter against the Bulls in March, the Brumbies narrowly escaped with a home win over the Cheetahs last weekend and with the Bulls being well rested, they should be able to pull away in the latter stages. Bulls by eight.
Bulls: 15 Zane Kirchner, 14 Akona Ndungane, 13 JJ Engelbrecht, 12 Jan Serfontein, 11 Bjorn Basson, 10 Morné Steyn, 9 Francois Hougaard, 8 Dewald Potgieter (captain), 7 Jacques Potgieter, 6 Deon Stegmann, 5 Grant Hattingh, 4 Flip van der Merwe, 3 Werner Kruger, 2 Chiliboy Ralepelle, 1 Dean Greyling.
Replacements: 16 Callie Visagie, 17 Frik Kirsten, 18 Morné Mellett, 19 Paul Willemse, 20 Jono Ross, 21 Jano Vermaak, 22 Jürgen Visser.
Brumbies: 15 Jesse Mogg, 14 Henry Speight, 13 Tevita Kuridrani, 12 Christian Lealiifano, 11 Clyde Rathbone, 10 Matt Toomua, 9 Nic White, 8 Ben Mowen (captain), 7 George Smith, 6 Peter Kimlin, 5 Sam Carter, 4 Scott Fardy, 3 Ben Alexander, 2 Stephen Moore, 1 Scott Sio.
Replacements: 16 Siliva Siliva, 17 Ruan Smith, 18 Fotu Auelua, 19 Colby Faingaa, 20 Ian Prior, 21 Andrew Smith, 22 Joseph Tomane.
Date: Saturday, July 27
Venue: Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria
Kick-off: 17.05 (15.05 GMT; 01.05 AEST, Sunday, July 28)
Expected weather: Sunny and mild with a 16km/h westerly wind. High of 22°C and low of 7°C
Referee: Craig Joubert (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Jonathan Kaplan (South Africa), Marius Jonker (South Africa)
TMO: Shaun Veldsman (South Africa)
By Quintin van Jaarsveld