The Stormers will be looking to carry their successful pre-season form into Super Rugby when they play the Bulls at Newlands.%u200B
The Stormers had a heartbreaking season in 2016 after winning Africa 1 Conference by a convincing nine points before they met the Chiefs in the quarter-final, where they were completely outplayed 60-21 at home.
The men from Cape Town know they face much stronger opposition this season, as they play the New Zealand Conference and will need to prove that they can compete at a level of higher intensity.
The Bulls played some positive, running rugby last season but could not get the wins they so desperately needed to make it into the higher echelons of the competition. They missed the quarter-finals by two points, which signed off their season as a dud.
That cannot have been easy to take for a proud institution and the Bulls would have been hurt by not being in the top three South African franchises, and will expect to come back with a vengeance.
The Bulls do have some key players returning from injury this season, with Handré Pollard back and so is the undersung hero of Jan Serfontein who was also out for most of Super Rugby 2016.
Stormers coach Robbie Fleck told SuperSport that he is under no illusion as to how important this game is.
“This is a massive game for us. Both us and the Bulls are in a tough group, and both of us have to tour New Zealand later on, so it is imperative that we get a result so we can build confidence. It is not about playing at home or away, everyone wants to get their season off to a winning start regardless of where they are playing,” Fleck said.
“We’ve had a good pre-season. The preparation has been great. Now it is time for us to get stuck in.”
Bulls coach, Nollis Marais, was keen to get the season underway, despite the massive challenge they face in Round One.
“You need to beat the best teams in the competition if you want to win it and to be honest, there will be no easy games. The Stormers will pose a massive challenge, no doubt, but that will be a good benchmark for us at the start of our campaign. We have realistic expectations this year and with a good start, we believe we can still be involved come the final weekends.”
The last time these teams met: The Bulls claimed a 17-13 win over the Stormers at Loftus Versveld in Super Rugby last year. It was an evenly-contested game throughout the match with the Stormers getting the upper hand a few times but the accurate boot of replacement fly-half Tian Schoeman guided his side to victory after slotting a drop goal in the 75th minute.
Players to watch: The Springbok lock pairing of Pieter-Steph du Toit and Eben Etzebeth is arguably the best in the world for a reason. The two bruisers can pummel opposition into submission with little effort and dominate the lineout, as they showed last year when the Stormers finished first in line-outs pilfered in the final statistics.
Handré Pollard returns as previously mentioned and he’ll mean business when he enters the Super Rugby fray after so long on the sidelines. Pollard was one of the best fly-halves in 2015 before succumbing to his year-long injury, ruling him out of the 2016 season. He provides an attacking edge, an accurate boot as well as crisp distribution to his men outside him. The success of the Bulls season could rest on Pollard’s shoulders.
Team news: Siya Kolisi takes over the reigns as captain with Juan de Jongh injured, which will be an interesting development in the Stormers dynamic. The flanker has been a vocal member of the Stormers camp throughout his stay at Newlands and will most certainly be a captain who leads by example as he is not one to hide from the gritty parts of the game. The Stormers back row is a deadly combination considering how well balanced it is. Rynhardt Elstadt provides an enforcer role, Nizaam Carr is fantastic with ball in hand while Kolisi can provide a bit of both.
In other captaincy news the Bulls will be under the leadership of the recently returned fly-half, Pollard. With Bulls and former Springbok captain Adriaan Strauss recovering from surgery the mercurial number 10 will take over the honours. He has experience in leadership after captaining the South African U20 sides. Otherwise the Bulls aren’t short of experience as they harbour seven Springbok-capped players amongst their ranks. The Bulls have named a lethal back three, with two Springboks in Jamba Ulengo and Jesse Kriel, with rising star Travis Ismaiel in the 11 jersey. The Stormers will need to watch the Bulls’ flyers lethal runs.
Form: The Stormers won all of their pre-season games with victories against the Cheetahs 43-7 in Harare, the SWD Eagles 57-14 in George and the Lions 57-40 in Cape Town which would have sent a message out to their opposition that they mean business going into this competition.
The Bulls built some momentum in the pre-season as well with some convincing wins over the Lions in Harare and then the Chiefs in Brisbane. The Pretoria side beat the Lions 38-19 convincingly in Harare and then played the Chiefs where they won 28-7 after scoring four tries through Burger Odendaal, Dries Swanepoel, Warrick Gelant and a penalty try.
2016: Bulls won 17-13 in Pretoria
2016: Stormers won 33-9 in Cape Town
2015: Stormers won 15-13 in Cape Town
2015: Stormers won 29-17 in Pretoria
2014: Stormers won 16-0 in Cape Town
2014: Bulls won 28-12 in Pretoria
2013: Stormers won 30-13 in Cape Town
2013: Bulls won 25-17 in Pretoria
Stormers: 15 SP Marais, 14 Cheslin Kolbe, 13 EW Viljoen, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Dillyn Leyds, 10 Jean-Luc du Plessis, 9 Jano Vermaak, 8 Nizaam Carr, 7 Siya Kolisi (c), 6 Rynhardt Elstadt, 5 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 4 Eben Etzebeth (vc), 3 Wilco Louw, 2 Bongi Mbonambi, 1 JC Janse van Rensburg
Replacements: 16 Ramone Samuels, 17 Oli Kebble, 18 Frans Malherbe, 19 Chris van Zyl, 20 Sikhumbuzo Notshe, 21 Dewaldt Duvenage, 22 Dan Kriel, 23 Rob du Preez
Bulls: 15 Jesse Kriel, 14 Jamba Ulengo, 13 Dries Swanepoel, 12 Burger Odendaal, 11 Travis Ismaiel, 10 Handre Pollard(c), 9 Rudy Paige, 8 Hanro Liebenberg, 7 Jacques Potgieter, 6 Nick de Jager, 5 RG Snyman, 4 Lood de Jager, 3 Trevor Nyakane, 2 Jaco Visagie, 1 Pierre Schoeman
Replacements: 16 Edgar Marutlulle, 17 Jacobie Adriaanse, 18 Lizo Gqoboka, 19 Jason Jenkins, 20 Ruan Steenkamp, 21 Piet van Zyl, 22 Tian Schoeman, 23 Warrick Gelant
Date: Saturday, February 25
Venue: Newlands, Cape Town
Kick-off: 19:30 local (17:30 GMT)
Referee: Jaco van Heerden (South Africa)
Assistant Referees: Shuhei Kubo (Japan), Stuart Berry (South Africa)
TMO: Marius Jonker (South Africa)