With Super Rugby now just days away, we preview each of the teams in the competition ahead of the new season. Next up, the Bulls.
The glory days have drifted further away with each passing year for the Bulls as the three-time champions have struggled to adapt to the changing face of world rugby.
A new coach – leading an ambitious young team – and a favourable draw initially seemed to point to better days but the pre-season has not been kind to the men from Pretoria. A few injuries to key players may have ruined the Bulls' campaign before it has even begun.
Last Year: Ninth place with just seven wins from their sixteen games was never going to be good enough for Bulls fans and the empty seats at Loftus Versfeld were conspicuous in their abundance. They recovered well from back-to-back losses on home soil in the opening two rounds, but a five-game losing streak to end the season – including a winless overseas tour – proved too much to save coach Frans Ludeke's job.
It's telling that Ludeke departed in the same year that his predecessor at the Bulls, Heyneke Meyer, resigned as Springbok coach for much the same reasons: overwhelming public frustration aimed at limited tactics that have evolved little since their last title in 2010.
This Year: 2016 could not have started in a worse fashion for new coach Nollis Marais, who saw Springbok fly-half Handrè Pollard – the kingpin to the Bulls' plans – ruled out for the season with a serious knee injury. With Jacques-Louis Potgieter back in France, the Bulls are short on depth at fly-half, which is a serious stumbling block in their plans to implement a more expansive gameplan. Losing Lappies Labuschagne for the first two months won't help either.
Nevertheless, they have a favourable draw and the new bonus-point system – which will help strong defensive teams – could work to their advantage. Marais has an exciting young backline to work with, including an all-Springbok midfield, but their fortunes will come down to whether their pack can rekindle the abrasive spirit that made the forwards in light blue the most feared unit in the southern hemisphere.
Key Players: First and foremost, whoever plays fly-half – Francois Brummer has returned from the Cheetahs via the Griquas while Tian Schoeman still has a lot to learn at this level. Loftus Versfeld has a long history of outstanding fly-halves – from Naas Botha to Derick Hougaard and Morne Steyn – and the Bulls need one of the young pivots to stand up and be counted.
Given the inexperience at 10, scrum-half Rudy Paige will need to back up his breakout season last year, when he was arguably the form South African scrum-half in 2015. Skipper Adriaan Strauss had a disappointing season by his standards last term, but he is a world-class player and has the ability to inspire and lead by example. Rising Springbok star Jesse Kriel is set to be the focus of the Bulls' attack.
Players to Watch: Nigerian-born Luther Obi has been snapped up from the Kings and has the potential become a big name. Full-back Warrick Gelant was one of the best players in the 2015 Currie Cup and the Springbok Sevens player is sure to catch the eye with his pace when he makes his Super Rugby debut. Fit-again Arno Botha is a true contender for a national recall having overcome multiple and serious injury issues.
Prospects: The Bulls will always start the season with title ambitions, but silverware seems like a long shot in 2016. A place in the quarter-finals is a minimum requirement but they could well finish below the Stormers in their conference and will thus have to travel, meaning the semi-finals may be a step too far.
Players In: Lizo Gqoboka (Kings), Nick de Jager (Saracens), Freddy Ngoza (Cheetahs), Francois Brummer (Cheetahs), Luther Obi (Kings)
Players Out: Morné Mellett (retired), JJ Engelbrecht (Ospreys), Ryan Nell (Boland), William Small-Smith (Cheetahs), Akona Ndungane (retired), Jurgen Visser (Kings), Frans Ludeke (coach, Fiji).
Saturday, 27 February v Stormers (Newlands, Cape Town)
Saturday, 5 March v Rebels (Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria)
Round 3: BYE
Friday, 18 March v Sharks (Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria)
Saturday, 26 March v Sunwolves (National Stadium Singapore)
Saturday, 2 April v Cheetahs (Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria)
Saturday, 9 April v Kings (Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, Port Elizabeth)
Saturday, 16 April v Reds (Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria)
Round 9: BYE
Friday, 29 April v Force (nib Stadium, Perth)
Friday, 6 May v Brumbies, (GIO Stadium, Canberra)
Saturday, 14 May v Waratahs, (Allianz Stadium, Sydney)
Saturday, 21 May v Stormers (Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria)
Saturday, 28 May v Lions (Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria)
Saturday, 2 July v Jaguares (Vélez Sarsfield, Buenos Aires)
Saturday, 9 July v Sunwolves (Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria)
Saturday, 16 July v Cheetahs (Free State Stadium, Bloemfontein)
By Ross Hastie