Patrick McKendry

Patrick McKendry is a rugby writer for the Herald.

Rugby: Blues look to outrun Bulls

Contrast in styles - pragmatic rugby versus an entertaining game - will be fascinating.

Skipper Luke Braid is becoming a force to be reckoned with. Photo / Richard Robinson
Skipper Luke Braid is becoming a force to be reckoned with. Photo / Richard Robinson

A lot of mental preparation and less focus on the physical stuff was Blues coach Sir John Kirwan's summary of how his team would tackle this week after a long trip from Auckland to Pretoria.

A glimpse at the Bulls' performances ahead of their match at Loftus Versfeld should help with the former.

The men from the Highveld have won this competition three times, including successive titles in 2009 and 2010, but this is not the Bulls of old, although in Victor Matfield they do have a blast from the past.

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Frans Ludecke's team have won one match from three; the state of their season reflected in the relief on their faces after their sole victory - 25-17 over the Lions at Fortress Loftus at the weekend.

In seasons past a victory over a team welcomed back into the Super Rugby fold after a year's hiatus would be expected as a matter of course. After successive losses to the Sharks and the Cheetahs, it was seen as a breakthrough.

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Morne Steyn, the first-five who would expect to kick everything in the opposition's territory, including drop goals, has gone; his place swapped between Louis Fouche, 19-year-old Handre Pollard, and more recently, Jacques-Louis Potgieter.

Potgieter is back at the Bulls after leaving in 2010, sick of playing second fiddle to Steyn. He played 80 minutes against the Lions, scoring 20 points, and seems set for a long stint in the No10 jersey.

Ludecke might have found the solution to one of his problems, but others remain.

Tellingly, his team is the worst in the competition in several attacking categories, although the wet weather which seems to have followed them around will not have helped.

According to the Rugby Herald's Stats Centre, they have made the least clean breaks, beaten the fewest defenders, made the fewest passes and scored the fewest tries (two).

They also kick the ball away more than any other team - and this could hurt them severely against the Blues, who have shown against the Highlanders and Crusaders they can be devastating counter-attackers.

The attacking merits of Charles Piutau, George Moala and Tevita Li have become obvious recently, with skipper Luke Braid, a loose forward, also becoming a force to be reckoned with.

Braid has beaten eight defenders in his two appearances, with Piutau (9) leading the way. Moala (7) and Li (5) were try scorers against the Crusaders.

For the Bulls, centre Jan Serfontein leads the way, but he has beaten only five defenders in three full matches. The next best is lock Jacques Du Plessis with four.

The Bulls have struggled to express themselves with the ball so far this season - a problem the Blues do not have.

The contrast in styles - pragmatic rugby versus an entertaining game - will be fascinating and in truth both Ludecke and Kirwan would probably like to adopt some of their rival's qualities.

Simon Hickey must be a shoo-in for selection on Sunday morning (NZ time) after his reliable performance on debut against the Crusaders. The challenge for the 20-year-old will be to do it again a long way from home and with the prospect of a defensively minded Bulls team repeatedly attacking his channel.

- APNZ

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