JOHANNESBURG, May 21 – Defending champions Northern Bulls and seven-time winners Canterbury Crusaders clash Saturday in an extraordinary Super 14 semi-final.It will be the first major rugby union fixture staged in the black township of Soweto, about a 30-minute drive south-west from the South African financial nerve centre.
The move from the intimidating Loftus Versfeld home of Bulls in an upmarket Pretoria suburb to Orlando Stadium was necessitated by preparations at the rugby ground for the 2010 FIFA World Cup.
How times have changed with Orlando Stadium once the dilapidated home of South African football, a predominantly black sport ignored by successive apartheid governments.
And the Bulls were once called Northern Transvaal, an exclusively white team including soldiers and policeman who fought to uphold racist government policies and whose supporters were all white.
South Africa has moved on dramatically from those dark days and when the Bulls had to choose a temporary home from two football stadiums and one cricket ground, they opted for the rebuilt 40,000-seat Orlando Stadium.
Bulls coach Frans Ludeke sees no problems with the move to Soweto as Bulls seek a second success over Crusaders in three weeks having snatched a 40-35 mini-league victory at Loftus.
"The crowd will come, the referee will blow his whistle, and it should all be the same. It will be a great privilege to play in Soweto and the significance of the occasion is not lost on us," he told reporters.
Sowetans in the crowd used to short, slightly built local footballers are in for a rude shock as they stare up at Bulls two-metre ‘man mountains’ like locks Victor Matfield and Danie Rossouw and number eight Pierre Spies.
A giant conspicuous by his absence will be lock-cum-enforcer Bakkies Botha, suspended for four matches this week after once again being caught charging illegally into a ruck.
While Botha has missed most of the Super season through injury and Springbok Rossouw would walk into most rival starting line-ups, the absence of suspended wing Gerhard van den Heever could be sorely felt.
He was cited for a spear tackle in the Crusaders game, which Bulls won deep in stoppage time through a controversial Francois Hougaard try that Crusaders claimed stemmed from a forward pass, but big-screen replays proved otherwise.
Former Bok Jaco van der Westhuysen replaces Van den Heever and defensively strong Jaco Pretorious is back at outside centre after missing the Crusaders clash through injury.
Crusaders make one change to the 22-man squad that sealed a last-four place via a 40-22 victory over Australian visitors ACT Brumbies with Kahn Fotuali’i replacing Willi Heinz as reserve scrum-half.
Bulls used home advantage and deadly place kicking to overcame Crusaders in 2007 and 2009 semi-finals with Derick Hougaard and Morne Steyn the heroes and the latter will be lurking in Soweto ready to punish any infringements.
A Canterbury side skippered by All Blacks flanker Richie McCaw were unlucky to lose in Pretoria this month after running the Bulls ragged at times and scoring four tries.
But the odds are tilted against the red-and-grey outfit with no away team winning a Super 14 semi-final since Brumbies trumped the Waratahs in 2002, and that was an Australian affair involving far less travel for the away side.