Following the departure of 10 stalwart players to overseas clubs, the Bulls have struck a balance between youth and experience for their Super Rugby opener against the Sharks in Durban on Saturday.
Coach Frans Ludeke was satisfied with the composition of the match-22 with Springbok legend Victor Matfield set to make his return to the side off the bench.
“The balance always needs to be there — last year in the Currie Cup a lot of the youngsters came through — so we are confident that we have the players,” Ludeke said at the team announcement in Pretoria on Wednesday.
While the team may have a youthful feel to it, they have plenty of players with Super Rugby experience behind them. Only three of them have played less than 10 games in the competition.
The Bulls side will go into the Sharks match with a new-look, loose trio consisting of flankers Jacques du Plessis and Jono Ross combining with captain Pierre Spies.
Spies admitted the loss of their seasoned players have left a void but he was confident the younger players would be able to pull their own weight.
“We have more than enough experience to carry us through the season. We’ve lost a lot of experienced players but we’ve got a great bunch of young players coming though,” Spies said.
Matfield, who played his last Test for the Springboks at the 2011 Rugby World Cup in New Zealand, captained the Pretoria-based franchise to all three of their Super Rugby titles – in 2007, 2009 and 2010.
Before the announcement at the end of January that he would come out of his two-year retirement, Matfield had been part of the Bulls’ coaching staff in 2013.
Spies said the 36-year-old Matfield’s return to the field would add some much-needed experienced to the side against a Springbok-laden Sharks team.
“It is great to have coach Victor in the 22. He is almost twice the age of Handre Pollard, but it is a massive plus for us as he is bringing massive amounts of experience into the team.
“Vic brings a massive amount of calmness to the rest of the players and I am really happy for him being back on the field. He obviously still has a big passion to play the game and he’s been in great form during the training sessions.”
While it was expected that Matfield would be eased back into the top-flight rugby, his regular number-five jersey has been worn by Flip van der Merwe, who excelled in that position for the national side last year.
Van der Merwe will pair up with the promising Paul Jordaan, with Matfield likely to come on in the second half of the clash.
The veteran is set to join former Sharks AJ Venter and John Smit in becoming the most capped South African Super Rugby players when he takes to the field in his 125th match.
Matfield, who was regarded as the best lineout jumper in world rugby before his retirement, diverted attention to Van der Merwe when he was asked about a possible matchup with rising Springbok lock Pieter-Steph du Toit.
“For now they must rather worry about Flip against him (Du Toit) who is the incumbent Springbok number-five and Pieter-Steph is his backup,” he said.
“It is going to be interesting, the pre-season was good and I took part in most of the sessions so I feel good and a bit nervous of course.”
Meanwhile, Springbok scrumhalf Piet van Zyl, who joined from the Cheetahs, will play off the bench, as will Jacques Engelbrecht, who joined from the Southern Kings.
Bulls scrumhalf Francois Hougaard will form a halfback combination with Louis Fouche, who has to fill the big shoes of Morne Steyn at flyhalf.
15 Jurgen Visser, 14 Akona Ndungane, 13 J J Engelbrecht, 12 Jan Serfontein, 11 Bjorn Basson, 10 Louis Fouché, 9 Francois Hougaard, 8 Pierre Spies (captain), 7 Jacques du Plessis, 6 Jono Ross, 5 Flip vd Merwe, 4 Paul Willemse, 3 Werner Kruger, 2 Callie Visagie, 1 Dean Greyling
Substitutes: 16 Bongi Mbonambi, 17 Frik Kirsten, 18 Victor Matfield, 19 Jacques Engelbrecht, 20 Piet van Zyl, 21 Handré Pollard, 22 Ulrich Beyers, 23 Marcel vd Merwe