The Bulls will be hoping to get their campaign back on track when they host the Highlanders in what promises to be a thrilling encounter in Pretoria on Saturday.
The men from Loftus are in the midst of a mini crisis after they conceded 10 tries in last weekend’s 62-24 defeat to the Crusaders at the same venue.
That result was the three-time champions’ biggest ever home defeat in Super Rugby history. The Bulls will be looking to avoid back-to-back losses at home for the first time since the opening fortnight of the 2015 campaign.
New captain Hanro Liebenberg knows a massive challenge awaits his charges against the Highlanders, who are on a six-match winning streak.
“It is a massive honour to lead this team and what it stands for, but Saturday’s effort will not be about me at all,” he said.
“It will be about the team taking responsibility of our performance out there. The challenge is massive, as the Highlanders are one formidable opponent, but we have to start showing progress and reward for the hard work.”
The Highlanders will be brimming with confidence as they head into this clash after claiming a remarkable come-from-behind – with three tries in the last five minutes – 45-41 win over the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein last weekend.
The 2015 champions have won four of their last six games against the Bulls, though the last time they beat them by more than seven points was in 2009.
The men from Dunedin’s last four games in South Africa have seen an average aggregate score of 73 points (W3, L1). The Bulls boast a lineout success rate of 92 percent, the best of any team in the competition and four percentage points higher than the Highlanders.
The Highlanders’ All Blacks flyer Waisake Naholo beat a round-high 12 defenders in Round 11, the last time any player made more was Digby Ioane’s 13 defenders beaten in Round 12, 2013.
The last time the teams met: The Highlanders claimed a 27-20 victory in Dunedin in 2014 but they had to fight back from a 10-point deficit midway through the first half. They eventually recovered to secure the win with Lima Sopoaga, Gareth Evans and Malakai Fekitoa crossing the whitewash. For the Bulls, Bjorn Basson and Marcel van der Merwe scored tries.
Team news: Bulls coach Nollis Marais has named number eight Hanro Liebenberg as his team’s captain for this clash. Liebenberg will become the 19th player to lead the Bulls since the inception of the Super Rugby competition. Liebenberg takes over the captaincy from Adriaan Strauss, who has a foot injury. Travis Ismaiel and Jacques Potgieter have also been ruled out. They will be replaced by debutant Jade Stighling and Jannes Kirsten respectively. Marais made a number of personnel changes to the pack. Jaco Visagie (for Strauss), Lizo Gqoboko (for Pierre Schoeman), RG Snyman (for Lood de Jager) and a fit-again Ruan Steenkamp (for Nick de Jager) will all start this week. Edgar Marutlulle is also back in the matchday 23 to fill the vacancy left by Visagie, while Coenraad van Vuuren was named as back-up tighthead prop. He takes over from Jacobie Adriaanse. There is also a potential debut for fly-half Tony Jantjies, who was named on the bench in place of injured Francois Brummer.
Highlanders head coach Tony Brown has made six changes to his starting XV for this fixture. A training injury to Luke Whitelock has forced another reshuffle to the Highlanders loose forward trio, having lost Liam Squire last week Brown has named versatile loose forward Gareth Evans at number eight while Elliot Dixon takes Squire’s position on the blindside flank. Loosehead prop Aki Seiuli earns a start alongside hooker Ash Dixon in the front row and Alex Ainley takes Joe Wheeler’s place at lock. Dixon will captain the side in his first start of the season. Liam Coltman takes a well-earned break and Greg Pleasants-Tate and Jackson Hemopo will be looking to get their first run-on of the three week tour from the replacements bench. Richard Buckman returns from injury to take his place in the midfield, while utility back Teihorangi Walden will make his impact off the bench.
Form: The Bulls have won just three out of nine matches so far this season. All those victories were registered in Pretoria, against the Sunwolves Jaguares and Cheetahs. They also suffered away losses to the Cheetahs and Sunwolves and their other defeats were against the Stormers, Blues, Chiefs and the Crusaders.
The Highlanders are on a six-match unbeaten run after successive wins over the Brumbies, Rebels, Blues, Sunwolves, Stormers and Cheetahs. They started slowly, however, and their only win before that was against the Blues in Round 3. They suffered defeats to the Chiefs, Crusaders and Hurricanes in their other fixtures.
2014: Highlanders won 27-20 in Dunedin
2013: Bulls won 35-18 in Pretoria
2012: Highlanders won 16-11 in Dunedin
2011: Highlanders won 35-28 in Pretoria
2010: Bulls won 50-35 in Pretoria
2009: Highlanders won 36-12 in Palmerston North
2008: Bulls won 47-17 in Pretoria
2007: Bulls won 22-13 in Dunedin
Bulls: 15 Warrick Gelant, 14 Jade Stighling, 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 Burger Odendaal, 11 Jamba Ulengo, 10 Tian Schoeman, 9 Piet van Zyl, 8 Hanro Liebenberg (c), 7 Jannes Kirsten, 6 Ruan Steenkamp, 5 RG Snyman, 4 Jason Jenkins, 3 Trevor Nyakane, 2 Jaco Visagie, 1 Lizo Gqoboka
Replacements: 16 Edgar Marutlulle, 17 Pierre Schoeman, 18 Coenraad van Vuuren, 19 Lood de Jager, 20 Nick de Jager, 21 Rudy Paige, 22 Tony Jantjies, 23 Jan Serfontein
Highlanders: 15 Matt Faddes, 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Richard Buckman, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Marty Banks, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Gareth Evans, 7 Dillon Hunt, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Tom Franklin, 4 Alex Ainley, 3 Siosuia Halanukonuka, 2 Ash Dixon (c), 1 Aki Seiuli
Replacements: 16 Greg Pleasants-Tate, 17 Daniel Lienert-Brown, 18 Siate Tokolahi, 19 Joe Wheeler, 20 Jackson Hemopo, 21 Kayne Hammington, 22 Fletcher Smith, 23 Teihorangi Walden
Date: Saturday, May 13
Venue: Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria
Kick-off: 15.05 local (13.05 GMT)
Referee: Jaco van Heerden
Assistant Referees: Egon Seconds, Cwengile Jadezweni
TMO: Johan Greeff