Ahead of the 2017 season we take a closer look at each of the 18 teams participating in this year’s tournament. Next up, the Bulls.
With the Bulls no longer bleeding top talent to overseas clubs and young talent coming through in 2016, perhaps the three-time champions are beginning to emerge out of their early decade slump that has seen the slip from Super Rugby title contenders to also-rans.
Handré Pollard’s return to fitness and the signing of Lood de Jager offers glimpses of hope but doubts continue to linger over whether this Bulls crop, or even herd, are good enough to truly challenge deep into the competition. Making the play-offs for the first time since 2013 would be a start.
Last year: 2016 saw the Bulls finish nine points behind Africa 1 Conference winners the Stormers, and in the end just one point behind the Sharks who took the African Conference wildcard slot. Given the Sharks’ progress ended immediately with a 41-0 thumping from the Hurricanes in Wellington, it is worth debating if taking that wildcard place was actually something to celebrate.
Breaking down what went right (and wrong), the Bulls won nine of their 16 matches and were sturdy enough in defence to be competitive, conceding 37 tries which was the same amount as eventual champions the Hurricanes.
Despite starting on a low note with an away derby loss to the Stormers the Bulls then embarked on an impressive seven-game unbeaten run, including six wins and a draw with the Sharks, in which they knocked off the Rebels, Sunwolves, Cheetahs, Kings, Reds and Force.
Where their season came undone was a two-game tour of Australia which served up defeats to the Brumbies (23-6) and Waratahs (31-8).
The campaign then finished with defeats to the Lions and Jaguares in the middle of big wins over the Stormers (more in meaning than scoreline) and then the Sunwolves and Cheetahs. As previously mentioned, their final total of 42 points meant they finished one point off making the knockout stages.
This year: Once again the Bulls are paired with the Stormers, Sunwolves and Cheetahs, with the latter recently crowned Currie Cup champions as Franco Smith’s philosophy continues to be absorbed in Bloemfontein.
From a fixtures standpoint the Bulls once again start away at Newlands, given the opportunity to make a grand statement in a contest that should be far closer than the 2016 opener, before facing the Cheetahs back-to-back either side of their Round 3 bye. Two or three victories out of that opening segment would mark an excellent return, and crucially a march on those two rivals as well.
The mid-season trip to New Zealand to take on the Blues and Chiefs will be an acid test of their endurance and quality but fortunately tough challenges against the Highlanders and Crusaders both come at home later in the season.
Success for the Bulls won’t just happen on the back of strong set-piece, the game has changed remarkably since their almighty pack and kicking game last dominated the competition seven years ago, but nevertheless the ingredients are there for the Bulls to pummel opponents upfront at the scrum and lineout considering the number of Springboks at their disposal, spearheaded by Adriaan Strauss.
Tick that box and the onus falls on a group of talented backs – with real speed too in Jamba Ulengo and Travis Ismaiel – to consistently deliver.
Key players: The recruitment of Lood de Jager is one of the more interesting moves of the off-season as he swaps Cheetahs’ orange for Bulls’ blue after a year he will want to forget in 2016, when the Springbok looked miles off the fast pace he set on his way to being named South Africa’s Rugby Player of the Year for 2015.
De Jager’s partnership with the outstanding RG Snyman could genuinely rival the Stormers’ duo of Eben Etzebeth and Pieter-Steph du Toit, hence why any future success for the Bulls this year seems to hinge on a first-class set-piece.
Handré Pollard’s return meanwhile can’t come soon enough and the young fly-half proved prior to his injury that as well as having a mature head on young shoulders when it comes to tactical awareness and consistent execution with his kicking game, he is also a phenomenal attacking threat when he takes the ball up to the gain-line. Expect him to be in the hunt to finish as one the tournament’s top points scorers after 167 in 2015.
Players to watch: As well as De Jager and Snyman the Bulls have former U20 standout Jason Jenkins in their ranks to keep the more established locks honest. Ulster-bound Arno Botha is a quality ball-carrier who can help the Bulls build significant momentum.
Another player in need of a big year is young Bulls utility back Jesse Kriel, whether used in midfield or at full-back, and his combination with Pollard as two playmakers could turn into an impressive combination for both franchise and country.
Prospects: There is no lack of talent among the Bulls’ ranks but whether they have the maturity and confidence to go deep in the tournament is a major doubt, with the Stormers their major threat in Africa 1 Conference. Any success will hinge on those two sets of back-to-back matches with the New Zealand sides, which should prove to be a revealing indication of their progress, or lack of, from last year. Ending their play-off drought is certainly possible.
Players In: Jacobie Adriaanse (Kings), Martin Dreyer (Blue Bulls), John-Roy Jenkinson (Blue Bulls), Gerhard Steenekamp (Blue Bulls), Conraad van Vuuren (Free State Cheetahs), Corniel Els (Blue Bulls), Edgar Marutlulle (Kings), Alandré van Rooyen (Blue Bulls) Lood de Jager (Cheetahs), Abongile Nonkontwana (Blue Bulls, Ryno Pieterse (Blue Bulls), Eli Snyman (Blue Bulls), Hendré Stassen (Blue Bulls), Ruben van Heerden (Blue Bulls), Shaun Adendorff (Boland Cavaliers), Ruan Steenkamp (Blue Bulls), Marco van Staden (Blue Bulls), Eduan Lubbe (Blue Bulls), Embrose Papier (Blue Bulls), André Warner (Blue Bulls), Tony Jantjies (Blue Bulls), Manie Libbok (Blue Bulls), Boeta Hamman (Blue Bulls), JT Jackson (Blue Bulls), Johnny Kôtze (Stormers), Franco Naudé (Blue Bulls), Irvin Ali (Blue Bulls), Andell Loubser (Blue Bulls), Sibahle Maxwane (Western Province), Jade Stighling (Blue Bulls), Ulrich Beyers (Blue Bulls), Earll Douwrie (Blue Bulls), Divan Rossouw (Blue Bulls)
Players Out: Dean Greyling (Oyonnax), Werner Kruger (Scarlets), Marcel van der Merwe (Toulon), Hencus van Wyk (Munakata Sanix Blues) Bandise Maku (retired), Callie Visagie (released), Grant Hattingh (Kubota Spears, Irné Herbst (Kings), Nico Janse van Rensburg (Montpellier), Marvin Orie (Lions), Lappies Labuschagné (Kubota Spears), Deon Stegmann (Honda Heat), Dan Kriel (Stormers), Bjorn Basson (Stormers), SP Marais (Stormers)
Saturday, February 25 v Stormers (Newlands Stadium, Cape Town)
Saturday, March 4 v Cheetahs (Toyota Stadium, Bloemfontein)
Round 3: BYE
Friday, March 17 v Sunwolves (Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria)
Saturday, March 25 v Blues (Eden Park, Auckland)
Saturday, April 1 v Chiefs (FMG Stadium, Waikato)
Saturday, April 8 v Sunwolves (Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium, Tokyo)
Saturday, April 15 v Jaguares (Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria)
Saturday, April 22 v Cheetahs (Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria)
Round 10: BYE
Saturday, May 6 v Crusaders (Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria)
Saturday, May 13 v Highlanders (Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria)
Saturday, May 20 v Lions (Ellis Park, Johannesburg)
Saturday, May 27 v Hurricanes (Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria)
Saturday, July 1 v Sharks (Growthpoint Kings Park, Durban)
Saturday, July 8 v Kings (Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria)
Saturday, July 15 v Stormers (Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria)
Photo credit: Blue Bulls Facebook page