Champions Cup Preview – Vodacom Bulls Could Pull Off Surprise In Bristol


The Vodacom Bulls will be hunting their second victory in the Investec Champions Cup against the Bristol Bears on Saturday at 17:15 (SA Time).

The Vodacom Bulls are coming off back-to-back defeats, falling short by only one point against Lyon in their last outing in the tournament and then suffering a 26-20 defeat against the DHL Stormers in the Vodacom United Rugby Championship, they will be desperate to gain some winning momentum.

Adding to the pressure, the Vodacom Bulls are currently in third place on their log with five points, but only thanks to their superior points difference over Saracens and their opponents this weekend, the Bristol Bears.

The Pretoria side, however, will draw comfort from the fact that the English outfit has also had an inconsistent season which has seen them win five of their 11 games in the Premiership, where they are ranked third last on the standings, but they will enter the match fresh off a morale-boosting away win against the Sale Sharks.

Kieran Marmion will make his first Champions Cup start for the Bristol Bears.

The scrum-half, who pulled off a heroic try-saving tackle against Sale Sharks last weekend, starts in the number nine shirt for Saturday’s showdown with the South African URC side.

Marmion is one of three changes from the side that inflicted a first home league defeat in 18 months on Sale Sharks last weekend, with Sam Grahamslaw in at loosehead and George Kloska coming in for the injured Kyle Sinckler.

On the bench, there’s a return for Virimi Vakatawa, who missed the trip to Salford through injury.

Director of Rugby, Pat Lam, said: “We’ve spoken all week about how we owe our home fans a performance – we were so disappointed with the result against Exeter but we’re relishing the opportunity in front of our record European crowd at Ashton Gate.

“This is a huge challenge for us against a Bulls side ranked number one for attack in the URC, so we’ll have to be at our best, as one team, again this weekend.”

“We have come here to win, it is that simple,” said Vodacom Bulls Director of Rugby Jake White.

“The reality is, this is a make or break fixture for both teams because the reality is whoever wins this match is almost, almost guaranteed a spot in the playoffs,”

“It is a tough competition. Winning one and losing one has left us in the middle of the pool and this fixture will give us clarity on where we potentially will finish. This is a massive game for us because it could influence the next four to five weeks in terms of our planning and travel across both the Champions Cup and the United Rugby Championship.”

On the expectations against Bristol, White said: “Over the last few weeks they have mauled a lot and they have played well. They would have gotten a lot out of their victory over the Sail Sharks, so we expect them to come at us fired up,”

“They are definitely not an 8th on the log team but maybe they just started the season badly and now they are playing catch up; however, they are a good side playing in a really competitive league.”

On the current mood in his camp, as the troops return from the short festive break, White remarked: “We are in a nice place as a club where we still have our destiny in our own hands in both competitions. We can still have home playoffs and finish at the top,”

“We played well against Lyon and it was just one or two playing decisions that we could have made differently which would have seen us take five points but we got a lot of learnings out of there.”

On the return of Harold Vorster to match fitness, the seasoned mentor said: “Having him back with the experience he has and age will do us well. He pairs up with David (Kriel) who has done well for us as well,”

“We also have the pair of Ruan Nortje and Ruan Vermaak returning which is nice for us and adds more depth to our squad,”

“The nice thing about where we are as a group is that whether we interchange players in different roles, we seem to do well.”
On the decision to rest the triumphant Springboks quartet, White said this was not an indication or sign of prioritizing the one competition over the other.

“It is a catch-22 because when do you rest and when don’t you rest them? The reality is they need to be given an eight-week break. This doesn’t mean we prioritise the one competition over the other because we have big ambitions for both,”

“Yes, there was an idea to rest the one and keep the other however I decided on giving the mass a rest because they play better as a combination, so I’d rather have them together than one and not the other,”

“So, I looked at the players we have and thought this will not influence our planning that much but rather give them off now which will be an extra week over Christmas with their families but nothing untoward the competitions.”


Bristol Bears: 15 Max Malins, 14 Noah Heward, 13 Benhard Janse van Rensburg, 12 James Williams, 11 Gabriel Ibitoye, 10 AJ MacGinty, 9 Kieran Marmion, 8 Magnus Bradbury, 7 Dan Thomas, 6 Steven Luatua (c), 5 Joe Batley, 4 Josh Caulfield, 3 George Kloska, 2 Gabriel Oghre, 1 Sam Grahamslaw. Replacements: 16 Will Capon, 17 Jake Woolmore, 18 Max Lahiff, 19 Joe Owen, 20 Jake Heenan, 21 Harry Randall, 22 Virimi Vakatawa, 23 Rich Lane.

Vodacom Bulls: 15 Devon Williams, 14 Sebastian de Klerk, 13 David Kriel, 12 Harold Voster, 11 Sergeal Petersen, 10 Johan Goosen, 9 Embrose Papier, 8 Mpilo Gumede,, 7 Elrigh Louw, 6 Marcell Coetzee (captain), 5 Reinhardt Ludwig, 4 Ruan Vermaak, 3 Wilco Louw, 2 Jan-Hendrik Wessels, 1 Gerhard Steenekamp. Replacements: 16 Simphiwe Matanzima, 17 Tiaan Lange, 18 Khutha Mchunu, 19 Ruan Nortjé, 20 Deon Slabbert, 21 Keagan Johannes, 22 Chris Smith, 23 Henry Immelman.