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.
There is no doubt that the Bulls have the ability to bounce back from what was their worst showing since Frans Ludeke took charge of the team in 2008, but even with that said, the team that boasts the biggest support base in South Africa knows all too well that it takes time to turn around a ship that has, in recent years, lost some of its most experienced hands.
Last Year: While a lot has been said about the respective player exoduses the Pretoria based side has experienced, the void left by experienced coaches who were roped-in to help the Springbok cause started filtering through and would also have contributed to their below average performances on the road last year.
Although solid when playing at their Loftus Versfeld home, the Bulls struggled to assert their traditional forwards-based dominance when playing outside of their comfort zone. They failed to win a single match on their Australasian tour and were also outclassed by the Lions for the very first time in the competition’s history.
They also lost several key players to injury – thrusting a lot of responsibility on the shoulders of youngsters who, although extremely talented, lacked the experience that is needed to grind out victories on the road.
This run of poor results even brought about a change in the team’s preferred, and well documented, style of play. That aspect should be an indication of just how desperate the team was to get out of the proverbial hole they found themselves in.
This year: The Bulls again suffered a few setbacks as far as losing players to lucrative European contracts are concerned, but they also acquired some much needed muscle that should make them far more competitive in what will be the last season before the new Super Rugby format is introduced.
They still have the most experienced coach in the competition in their ranks and will be banking on players like Pierre Spies and Arno Botha, who are both returning from lengthy injury lay-offs, to provide the spunk they may have lacked in previous years.
Further reinforcements are expected later in the season and if Ludeke’s men manage to get off to a solid start in their first three home fixtures, they will have a platform from where they will be able to lodge a realistic challenge for a place in the play-offs.
The main focus this season should, however, be on ensuring the future stars they have in their ranks are given the right amount of exposure. Player management turned-out to be a nightmare for Ludeke in 2014 because of the number of injury setbacks his team suffered. It will therefore be interesting to see how the Bulls go about their business if they manage to get off to the desired start.
While it was notable that a new strategy was followed during their pre-season matches – the Bulls gave the ball a lot more air and kicked less than they may have in the past – don’t expect them to move too far away from their traditional strengths that is routed in their big ball carriers asserting dominance up front.
Key Players:Perhaps one of the most unlucky players not to have been afforded more time in the Springbok jersey, Deon Stegmann brings experience to the most important facet of the game (the breakdowns) and will again be a huge factor at the breakdown this year.
Equally the tactical kicking of Handr