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Plumtree, in his determination to right the wrongs of last year, has mixed and matched his backline talent. He could have taken the conservative route by selecting specialists in each backline position, with Pat Lambie at fullback, JP Pietersen on the wing, two former Springbok centres in Marius Joubert and Meyer Bosman in midfield, Freddie Michalak at flyhalf and Charl McLeod at scrumhalf.
Instead he has Griqua signing Riaan Viljoen at fullback, with Louis Ludik switched to wing, Pietersen at outside centre, Lambie at flyhalf and Michalak at scrumhalf. Structured positional play is blurred by the modern game, and this versatile backline has exciting attacking potential, although their defensive organisation will be tested.
There is a certain logic to Plumtree’s selections: Viljoen adds pace and a big boot at the back; Ludik’s pedigree as a fullback helps cover the tactical kicking game of Bulls pivot Morné Steyn; Pietersen’s strength and ability to stand up in the tackle could be crucial in midfield; the naturally gifted Lambie is a Springbok flyhalf in waiting; and the creative Michalak has played at scrumhalf for France.
But, of course, they have to gel as a unit and their talent will count for little if the Sharks forwards do not contain the Bulls pack and win a fair slice of quality possession.
The Bulls have lost a number of seasoned international forwards in Victor Matfield, Bakkies Botha, Danie Rossouw and Gurthro Steenkamp along with influential scrumhalf Fourie du Preez.
But they have depth in the squad and will still field a workmanlike unit, two beefy locks in Juandré Kruger and Springbok Flip van der Merwe, and a game-breaking scrumhalf in Francois Hougaard.
“Obviously losing the calibre of players that they have is huge,” said Sharks assistant coach Grant Bashford, “but we saw what they could do in their warm-up game against a full-strength Cheetahs’ side. They blew them away in the second half with their physicality more than anything, so we are under no illusions that it will be tough going to Loftus.”
Bulls coach Frans Ludeke yesterday made the fairly safe prediction that the team dominating the advantage line would win.
He added that little had changed in the Bulls’ approach, but the skills of Johann Sadie and Francois Venter in a new midfield and try-poaching wing Bjorn Basson might persuade Steyn to play with more width.
The Bulls’ captain, number eight Pierre Spies, is expecting “a physical war with the usual confrontations” and he is no doubt delighted that injury has denied the Sharks three powerful ball-carriers in Willem Alberts, Jean Deysel and Beast Mtawarira.
The Sharks, in terms of game time, have had a gentle introduction to the season with a series of low-profile friendlies and we will only know tonight whether that helped or hindered their preparation.
Certainly Sharks supporters, and Ludeke, do not know what to expect.
“We couldn’t gain much from the Sharks’ pre-season because of the quality of their opposition,” said Ludeke. “But we know they will carry the ball as often as possible.”
The Bulls, in front of the Pretoria faithful and with the boot of Steyn to punish the Sharks’ early-season indiscretions, will fancy their chances of winning. The Sharks, in turn, know they can win at Loftus but their backs need to settle quickly while the forwards have to stay in the faces of the Bulls for 80 minutes.
It will be an intriguing, enthusiastic start to a long slog of a season.
Bulls: 15 Zane Kirchner, 14 Akona Ndungane, 13 Johann Sadie, 12 Francois Venter, 11 Bjorn Basson, 10 Morné Steyn, 9 Francois Hougaard, 8 Pierre Spies (c), 7 Jacques Potgieter, 6 Deon Stegmann, 5 Juandré Kruger, 4 Flip van der Merwe, 3 Werner Kruger, 2 Chiliboy Ralepelle, 1 Dean Greyling. Replacements: 16 Willie Wepener, 17 Frik Kirsten, 18 Wilhelm Steenkamp, 19 CJ Stander, 20 Jano Vermaak, 21 Louis Fouché, 22 JJ Engelbrecht.
Sharks: 15 Riaan Viljoen, 14 Louis Ludik, 13 JP Pietersen, 12 Tim Whitehead, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Pat Lambie, 9 Frederic Michalak, 8 Ryan Kankowski, 7 Marcell Coetzee, 6 Keegan Daniel (c), 5 Anton Bresler, 4 Steven Sykes, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Bismarck du Plessis, 1 Dale Chadwick. Replacements: 16 Craig Burden, 17 Wiehahn Herbst, 18 Ross Skeate, 19 Jacques Botes, 20 Charl McLeod, 21 Meyer Bosman, 22 Paul Jordaan.
Referee: Jonathan Kaplan (SA).
Kick-off: 7.10 pm.
First round fixtures (SA times, home team first):
Blues vs Crusaders — 8.35 am
Brumbies vs Force — 10.40 am
Bulls vs Sharks — 7.10 pm.
Chiefs vs Highlanders — 8.35 am
Waratahs vs Reds — 10.40 am
Stormers vs Hurricanes — 5.05 pm
Lions vs Cheetahs — 7.10 pm.