WELLINGTON, New Zealand The Bulls will test their ability to win outside South Africa for the first time this season in rugby’s Super 14 when they play the winless Western Force at Perth in the last match of the seventh round.
The defending champions have won five from five matches nearing the midpoint of the regular season and lead the tournament standings by a point from compatriots the Stormers and seven-time champions the Canterbury Crusaders, who both have byes this round.
All five of the Bulls matches so far have been played in South Africa, four at their home ground of Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria where they are unbeaten through 15 games since April, 2008.
The Bulls and Force approach Sunday’s match from opposite ends of the championship table: the Bulls on top with 24 points, including four four-try bonus points, and the Force last with only one point, a consolation from last week’s 14-10 loss to the New South Wales Waratahs.
Faced with matches on the road over the next four weeks against the Force, Auckland Blues, Waikato Chiefs and the Queensland Reds, the Bulls need to demonstrate an ability to perform well away from home.
They won’t return to Loftus Versfeld until round 11 when they take on the currently winless Lions. They then face a hard trio of matches against the Sharks, Crusaders and Stormers, making it important they cement a high place in the standings over the next four rounds.
Centre Jaco Pretorius rejoins the starting lineup for the first time since round one in which he suffered a leg injury. Pretorius’ return re-establishes his powerful midfield partnership with fellow Springbok Wynand Olivier at the expense of Stephan Dippenaar.
Du Preez said the prospect of playing four matches in Australia and New Zealand no longer concerned the Bulls as it once did. Until 2008, the Bulls had one of the worst away records in the competition, but Du Preez credited former coach Heyneke Meyer with changing players’ mindset.
In other notable comebacks in the seventh round, former Wallabies fullback Julian Huxley has been named on the bench for the ACT Brumbies two years after undergoing surgery to remove a brain tumour. The Brumbies take on the Waikato Chiefs in Canberra.
“It was something I always thought I could do but didn’t know if it would happen,” said Huxley, who received clearances to return to rugby three weeks ago. “The day has come and it seems the last two years have gone like a flash.”
Former All Blacks backrower Sione Lauaki has been named in the Chiefs’ starting lineup for the first time since round two, only days after pleading guilty in a Hamilton court to a charge of assault. Lauaki will be sentenced May 6 over the incident in which he punched a man twice in the face.
The Wellington Hurricanes will try to revive their season after three straight losses in South Africa when they face the Sharks who posted their first win of the season last week.
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