The Blue Bulls will arrive at Newlands on Saturday – for their opening Currie Cup encounter with Western Province – as 13-2 outsiders, but not because bookmakers say so.
Seldom in the history of this traditional north-south derby has the Bulls been such huge underdogs.
The reason is that the visitors from Pretoria will virtually be sans an entire team that featured in their last trip to Cape Town.
It is just under a month since the Bulls last featured in a Newlands showdown, which saw the Stormers record a comprehensive 30-13 victory.
And 13 of the players from that starting XV will not make the trip this coming Saturday – Zane Kirchner, Akona Ndungane, JJ Engelbrecht, Bjorn Basson, Morné Steyn, Jano Vermaak, Dewald Potgieter, Jacques Potgieter, Deon Stegmann, Flip van der Merwe, Werner Kruger, Chiliboy Ralepelle and Dean Greyling.
Bulls Currie Cup coach Pine Pienaar admitted his young team is facing some daunting odds, but then no Bulls team has ever stood back from a challenge – least of all not when their arch-rivals are in the opposing corner.
“We do have a brand new team,” Pienaar told this website, when asked about the large chunk of absent players.
“In our [Currie Cup] squad of 30 we have nine Under-21 players,” the Bulls mentor said, adding: “Our starting XV for Saturday [against Western Province at Newlands] features five players who are still Under-21.
“We are inexperienced, but that said these players would not have been selected if they were not good enough.
“It will be a baptism of fire against the defending Currie Cup champions and will be a good indication of where we are at as a team.”
In stark contrast to the Bulls, the Province starting XV will feature 13 players who were involved in the July 13 Super Rugby demolition.
Gio Aplon, Gerhard van den Heever, Gary van Aswegen, Louis Schreuder, Nizaam Carr, Rynhardt Elstadt, Deon Fourie, De Kock Steenkamp, Brok Harris, Siyabonga Ntubeni and Steven Kitshoff all started last time round. Pat Cilliers, Gerbrandt Grobler, Nic Groom and Damian de Allende came off the bench and they will all be there again.
“That alone shows how strong the Province team will be in the Currie Cup this year,” Pienaar said about of the 13 Stormers that return in WP colours for Saturday’s Currie Cup outing.
Even the Bulls captain on Saturday, No.8 Jono Ross, pale by comparison with WP skipper Deon Fourie.
Ross, who will lead a team that features four Currie Cup rookies, made his debut in the Currie Cup competition in 2011 against Griquas and made one further appearance that season.
Last year he only featured in the Vodacom Cup and in 2013 was called into the Bulls Super Rugby side for their match against the Kings. He came off the bench in that loss to the Stormers.
Fourie, who captained Province to Currie Cup glory last year, represented South Africa at Sevens level internationally in 2007. The 26-year-old utility forward has over 150 appearances for WP and the Stormers – having made his Province debut in 2006 and his first Stormers appearance two years later.
However, Pienaar believes Ross is the right man to lead the Bulls.
“He displayed great leadership skills [with Tukkies] in the Varsity Cup this year,” he told this website, when asked about the 22-year-old No.8.
“He was also the Under-21 captain in 2011, when the Bulls won the [age group] competition.
“In terms of leadership he is doing very well. He has had some exposure and Super Rugby level and he is a leader by nature.
“There are also other leaders around him, senior players supporting him – it is also a great opportunity for him to show what he is capable of.”
By Jan de Koning