Coach Jake White may have joked this week that because they had lost the element of surprise by using their new expansive approach in their warm-up game against the Sharks a fortnight ago they would revert back to “just kicking up-and-unders and charge!”, the Bulls are likely to still bring plenty of fizz to their opening Super Rugby Unlocked match against Griquas at Loftus Versfeld on Saturday night.
The raw pace of Kurt-Lee Arendse may be missing due to injury, but his replacement on the wing, young David Kriel, showed plenty of finishing ability, and the centre pairing of Cornal Hendricks and Stedman Gans, who did much to mastermind the fantastic backline display against the Sharks on SuperFan Saturday, are still in place.
And when an inveterate dazzler like Gio Aplon says he is loving the game-plan at Loftus Versfeld, then you know the coach has given his charges the freedom to run. But the veteran fullback did also issue a word of pragmatism ahead of the clash with tricky opponents, who hammered the Bulls 37-15 in Pretoria last year in the Currie Cup.
“I’m really enjoying the game-plan and it’s very exciting being at the Bulls right now,” said the 38-year-old Aplon. “But first and foremost our goal is to win. So at some stages we might kick more and at others we will play more rugby. We want to find whatever way we can to win and we want to be unpredictable. We will do whatever is necessary for us to win.
“The Bulls are a team with good tradition and a great history and we want to get their name back up there. It’s a massive honour, especially at my age, to play for them and we’re not here to compete, we want to win competitions.”
While White has been able to lure back stars such as Aplon, stand-in captain Arno Botha, Jason Jenkins and Jacques van Rooyen, as well as investing in a host of exciting young prospects, and can afford to rest Springbok star Duane Vermeulen due to a knee niggle, there is a financial gulf between the Bulls and Griquas.
Nevertheless, Scott Mathie’s team from Kimberley do possess some quality players.
Fullback Anthony Volmink can certainly match any of the Bulls’ backline for pace and is a potent finisher, while flyhalf and captain George Whitehead has Super Rugby experience and is a smart head whose tactical and goal kicking could make the difference for Griquas.
Niell Jordaan, the former Shimlas star, is a hardened eighthman and he will relish taking on Tim Agaba now that the daunting Vermeulen is no longer his direct opponent, while prop John-Roy Jenkinson has returned from Japan to play for Griquas and will pack down against Van Rooyen in an intriguing battle in which both men weigh 122kg.
White knows, however, that his team is expected to win well and all the positive vibes from the Sharks game will be erased should they struggle.
“Of course it’s always a risk taking on one of the so-called minnows without all your first-choice players, and we understand that they will want to prove a point. But last year the Bulls lost against the Griquas so I don’t even need to give them a team talk, I can just show them the highlights of that game. We expect them to be fired up and confident because they won here last year,” said White.
“But we need to focus on what we can control, which is playing to a certain standard and the type of game we want to execute. I’m not trying to be arrogant but we want to be one of the best club sides in the world and if we’re going to prove that in Europe next year then we need to be top here in South Africa, like Leinster are over there.”
Bulls – Gio Aplon, Travis Ismaiel, Stedman Gans, Cornal Hendricks, David Kriel, Morne Steyn, Ivan van Zyl, Tim Agaba, Arno Botha, Marco van Staden, Ruan Nortje, Jason Jenkins, Trevor Nyakane, Corniel Els, Jacques van Rooyen. Replacements: Johan Grobbelaar, Lizo Gqoboka, Mornay Smith, Sintu Manjezi, Elrigh Louw, Embrose Papier, Chris Smith, Marco Jansen van Vuren.
Griquas – Anthony Volmink, Daniel Kasende, Harlon Klaasen, Andre Swarts, James Verity-Amm, George Whitehead, Zak Burger, Niell Jordaan, Stefan Willemse, Carl Els, Victor Sekekete, Ian Groenewald, John-Roy Jenkinson, HJ Luus, Mox Mxoli. Replacements: Alandre van Rooyen, Bandisa Ndlovu, Madot Mabokela, Adre Smith, Zandre Jordaan, Gideon van der Merwe, Ashlon Davids, Berton Klaasen.
Kick-off – 7pm.