The Bulls will be looking to turn Loftus back in to the fortress it once was when they host the Hurricanes in Super Rugby action on Saturday.
The Bulls have lost their last five games in a row at home, the last time they went on a longer losing streak at home was a nine-game drought from 2001 to 2003.
Once feared as a venue by travelling by teams, even the Kings won at the so-called fortress last season, while the Crusaders went on the rampage, running in 10 tries at the ground in a 62-24 walloping.
Now under the guidance of John Mitchell, they will not have it easy as they face possibly the best attack in the competition in the form of the Hurricanes.
Along the way to the semi-finals last season, the Hurricanes scored the most tries in that year’s competition and in Super Rugby history. They racked up 97 crossings, breaking the previous record set by the Lions in 2016 of 81.
In Ngani Laumape and Vince Aso, they had the competition’s top try-scorers, with the centre pairing scoring 15 and 14 respectively.
And Beauden Barrett is two points shy of becoming the fourth player in Super Rugby history to score 1,000 points.
The Hurricanes have won their last three games against the Bulls, this after the Bulls had defeated them in their four meetings prior.
The last time the sides met:
The Hurricanes did the damage in the first-half through tries from Jordie Barrett (‘1), Ngani Laumape (’18), Wes Goosen (’35) and Mark Abbott (’40) while the Bulls could only manage one through Duncan Matthews as the Bulls trailed 24-13 at the interval. Leni Apisai scored for the ‘Canes in the 59th minute before Nick De Jager’s 75th minute consolation score for the Bulls.
Burger Odendaal will lead a Bulls team that includes Springboks Warrick Gelant, Jesse Kriel, Handré Pollard and Lood de Jager in the starting team, with two more capped players, Adriaan Strauss and Marnitz Boshoff, amongst those who will play off the bench against their New Zealand opponents. Roelof Smit and RG Snyman, who both played for the Springboks against the British Barbarians, are also in the run-on team.
Boshoff will make a first appearance for the Bulls in the competition, having last played Super Rugby for the Lions, as will Johnny Kotze (ex-Stormers), Frans van Wyk (ex-Western Force) and Thembelani Bholi (ex-Southern Kings).
Marco van Staden, Embrose Papier and Divan Rossouw are selected to play at this level for the first time and will make a debut appearance in Super Rugby when they take to the field.
Van Staden and Bholi were not in the trimmed squad named by Mitchell a couple of weeks ago, but impressed Mitchell in squad sessions after that.
Mitchell was keen to see the competition starting and his squad competing.
“The wait is finally over for us. We worked hard to get to this point and that work and progress will now be tested against one of the best teams in the competition. It is a tough way to start, but we would not want it any other way,” Mitchell explained.
“We know we play a very decent team, but our squad will be pretty focussed on our own outcomes and how to get there. We worked hard to this point, but we understand that we will not be the complete product yet.”
Mitchell will be in charge of the team for the first time in the Super Rugby competition, although he has coached teams like the Lions and Western Force at this level before.
“It remains a fantastic competition and I am happy to be back as a coach. We have a number of objectives we want to achieve in Super Rugby and we can finally start testing our progress against a very capable opponent.”
Bulls captain, Burger Odendaal, was pleased to have a home start.
“We love playing at Loftus Versfeld and realise that we owe our loyal supporters a good season. The guys are pretty determined to deliver just that. We face some formidable opponents in the Hurricanes, but this is our home and we are committed to start something special as a group.”
Meanwhile, three new caps have been included in the Hurricanes starting XV.
Ihaia West has been given the starting spot at fly-half after his impressive pre-season form while former Wallabies prop Toby Smith will start at loosehead.
The other new cap in the starting XV is Hawke’s Bay number eight Gareth Evans. He will start alongside experienced loose forwards Ardie Savea and Brad Shields who will also captain the side.
Three more players will have the opportunity to make their Hurricanes debut off the bench, with head coach Chris Boyd naming prop Alex Fidow, lock Murray Douglas and halfback Jamie Booth among the reserves.
There is no shortage of experience and class on the bench, with World Rugby Player of the Year Beauden Barrett joining the likes of Blade Thomson and Ben Lam.
Thomson has made a more than solid comeback to play after having his past two seasons seriously impacted by shoulder injuries.
Despite having a limited amount of time on the field during the Hurricanes successful pre-season campaign, a number of players showed their readiness for action in last week’s win over the Blues.
That has given Boyd and the rest of the coaching staff confidence to start the likes of vice-captain TJ Perenara, Vaea Fifita and Ngani Laumape.
The Hurricanes will be looking to make it four wins in a row against the Bulls and continue their good form in South Africa in recent seasons that has seen them win four of their five regular season matches in the Republic.
It could also be a memorable game for Barrett if he makes it on to the field as he is set to become just the fourth player in Super Rugby history to score 1000 points.
2017: Hurricanes won 34-20 in Pretoria
2015: Hurricanes won 17-13 in Pretoria
2014: Hurricanes won 25-20 in Napier
2013: Bulls won 48-14 in Pretoria
2011: Bulls won 26-14 in Napier
2010: Bulls won 19-18 in Pretoria
2009: Bulls won 19-14 in Wellington
2008: Hurricanes won 50-22 in Pretoria
2007: Hurricanes won 17-9 in Wellington
Bulls: 15 Warrick Gelant, 14 Travis Ismaiel, 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 Burger Odendaal (c), 11 Johnny Kotze, 10 Handré Pollard, 9 Andre Warner, 8 Hanro Liebenberg, 7 Thembelani Bholi, 6 Roelof Smit, 5 Lood de Jager, 4 RG Snyman, 3 Frans van Wyk, 2 Jaco Visagie, 1 Pierre Schoeman
Replacements: 16 Adriaan Strauss, 17 Lizo Gqoboka, 18 Conraad van Vuuren, 19 Nic de Jager, 20 Marco van Staden, 21 Embrose Papier, 22 Marnitz Boshoff, 23 Divan Rossouw
Hurricanes: 15 Matt Proctor, 14 Julian Savea, 13 Vince Aso, 12 Ngani Laumape, 11 Wes Goosen, 10 Ihaia West, 9 TJ Perenara, 8 Gareth Evans, 7 Ardie Savea, 6 Brad Shields (c), 5 Sam Lousi, 4 Vaea Fifita, 3 Ben May, 2 Ricky Riccitelli, 1 Toby Smith
Replacements: 16 James O’Rielly, 17 Chris Eves, 18 Alex Fidow, 19 Murray Douglas, 20 Blade Thomson, 21 Jamie Booth, 22 Beauden Barrett, 23 Ben Lam
Date: Saturday, February 24
Venue: Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria
Kick-off: 17:15 local (15:15 GMT – 4.00am NZT)
Referee: Rasta Rasivhenge (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Marius van der Westhuizen (South Africa), Stephen Geldenhuys (South Africa)
TMO: Marius Jonker (South Africa)