A big battle awaits for the Chiefs
What awaits the Chiefs in Pretoria is "another big battle" against a rampaging Bulls side on a roll following an emphatic clean sweep of their three South African rivals in the opening rounds of Super Rugby.
After slumping to four successive losses before last Friday's 23-23 draw with the Hurricanes, the Chiefs begin their two-leg overseas tour at Loftus Versfeld Stadium on Sunday morning (NZ time) still seeking their first win in 2019.
Among other factors cranking up the pressure on Colin Cooper's side is the altitude at Pretoria's famous, old ground, which sits 1350m above sea level, and the Chiefs haven't won there since 2001.
In that 18-year winless stretch, the Chiefs have drawn one and lost six of their seven away games to the Bulls, a formidable-looking outfit this season, who boast an array of talented Springboks that are likely to front for South Africa's World Cup opener against the All Blacks on September 21.
What hope do the Chiefs have? Well, after alarming defeats to the Highlanders (27-30), Brumbies (17-54), Sunwolves (15-30) and Crusaders (28-57), All Black Damian McKenzie's return to fullback against the Hurricanes seemed to break the shackles and inspire a side that were shambolic in the first four rounds.
It came as no surprise to see Damian remain at fullback after Chiefs assistant coach Tabai Matson said using two playmakers "made a massive difference", but the big change this week is the selection of former Melbourne Rebels pivot Jack Debreczeni at first five-eighth ahead of Marty McKenzie, who drops out of the squad.
Jack will be the fourth different Chiefs No 10 in six weeks but plenty of responsibility rests on the large shoulders of captain and All Blacks lock Brodie Retallick, who will be vital in combating the competition's most accurate lineout the Bulls boast (96 per cent).
Tabai says the Chiefs must improve on last week's commendable draw if they're to have any chance of standing up to the Bulls.
"[We were] clearly not good enough to get a win and the Bulls are leading the South African conference after a week off," Tabai says.
"For us, Brodie [Retallick] has been leading us all week, saying we've just got to keep improving and we've taken different lessons out of last week.
"The Bulls give us a different focus. As always, it will be another big battle in Pretoria."
Among the Bulls' biggest threats is 45-test Springboks No 8 Duane Vermeulen at the back of a monstrous forward pack, while fellow internationals Handré Pollard and Jesse Kriel, who have each played 39 tests, are instrumental in orchestrating their attack at first-five and centre respectively.
Handré, the competition's leading points scorer (74) who boasts an outstanding kicking game, and Jesse have featured prominently in some scintillating plays the Bulls have devastatingly demonstrated in annihilating the Stormers (40-3), Lions (30-12) and Sharks (37-14), feeding the likes of former South African sevens flyer Rosko Specman, who has scored four tries this season.
They fell to defeat (27-12) against the Jaguares in Argentina in round two but the Bulls, who Matson said play a traditional South African style, have looked punishing on home turf, although their first clash with Kiwi opposition in 2019 is an altogether different prospect.
"There is always a contrast in styles and if we try and play a South African style of rugby, it's going to be a very long day at the office," Tabai says.
"We want to play our game at tempo and try to be more accurate. They'll bring what they normally bring: a very strong [lineout] drive and scrum."
AT A GLANCE
What: Bulls v Chiefs, Super Rugby
Where, when: Loftus Versfeld Stadium, Pretoria on Sunday, 2:05am (NZ time)
Bulls: Divan Rossouw, Cornal Hendricks, Jesse Kriel, Burger Odendaal, Rosko Specman, Handré Pollard, Ivan van Zyl; Duane Vermuelen, Jannes Kirsten, Ruan Steenkamp, Jason Jenkins, Hanro Liebenberg, Trevor Nyakane, Schalk Brits, Lizo Gqoboka. Reserves: Corniel Els, Simphiwe Matanzima, Dayan van der Westhuizen, Eli Snyman, Tim Agaba, Embrose Papier, Manie Libbok, Dylan Sage.
Chiefs: Damian McKenzie, Sean Wainui, Tumua Manu, Anton Lienert-Brown, Solomon Alaimalo, Jack Debreczeni, Brad Weber; Tyler Ardron, Lachlan Boshier, Luke Jacobson, Mitchell Brown, Brodie Retallick (c), Angus Ta'avao, Nathan Harris, Aidan Ross. Reserves: Samisoni Taukei'aho, Tevita Mafileo, Nepo Laulala, Michael Allardice, Jesse Parete, Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, Alex Nankivell, Ataata Moeakiola.
Chiefs' winless run against Bulls in Pretoria after 2001
2003: Lost 26-29
2005: Lost 26-29
2007: Lost 27-30
2009: Lost 27-33
2009: Lost 17-61 (final)
2011: Lost 27-43
2014: Drew 34-34