23 March 2020, by: Quintin van Jaarsveld

State of the Franchises: Bulls

In part two of our series on the state of South African Super Rugby sides at the unprecedented suspension of the tournament after the seventh round due to the global coronavirus pandemic, Quintin van Jaarsveld takes an in-depth look at the Bulls.

The Bulls need a great (Jake) White hope to save them or they are doomed for failure in 2020. It’s been a tough old slog for the men from Pretoria thus far. Their exhaustive endeavours have yielded just one win from six outings, an identical worrisome win-loss record to that of the Lions.

Victory eluded them until Round Six when they finally broke their duck, in quite some style, claiming a 38-13 bonus-point win over the equally embattled Highlanders at Loftus Versfeld. The losing bonus-point they took out of their first home game of the season against the Blues saves them from wooden spoon status in the South African Conference. That dishonour belongs to their neighbours.

Their six points see them sit in lowly 12th on the overall standings. They’re 11 points behind the Jaguares, who occupy third place in the local division and the final wildcard slot, suggesting the Bulls have already been reduced to also-rans.

Fight or flight

The nasty fistfight that broke out among fans at Loftus during the Round Five fixture against the Jaguares, which subsequently went viral, is a rather apt example of the struggles the Bulls have endured and how they’ve attempted to combat them.

There’s danger coming from every direction and logic has been lost. Brawn and physicality (still) trump brains and strategy. Blood and sweat are spilt but, in the end, little is achieved other than acquiring a few more bumps and bruises. As a result, the Bulls’ 2020 challenge has failed to get off the ground.

Bust signings have compounded the Pretoria franchise’s problems. Springbok pair Morné Steyn and Juandré Kruger, both commissioned out of France, have failed to fire, and the same is true for Scottish international Josh Strauss, who returned to South Africa from Sale Sharks. The big-name trio have been ineffective at best.

Kruger, in particular, has been disappointing. Returning from Toulon, he’s been well off the pace, unable to keep up with the faster speed of Super Rugby and the work rate of the younger second-rowers. According to reports, some members of the squad objected to his inclusion in the run-on side after the stalwart’s shortcomings had become clear, which apparently led to the 34-year-old’s demotion and eventual exclusion from the touring squad. To make matters worse, Kruger’s reportedly the highest-paid player at the franchise.

It’s always tough to be overly critical of signings such as these. Hindsight provides answers, but acquiring the trio had sound motivations. Breaking the bank in the process, if that was the case, is a different story, but you can’t blame the Bulls for thinking bringing the veterans into a depleted squad would have the same impact as Schalk Brits’ signing had last season.

Costly errors

The Round Four clash against the Blues at home is one the Bulls should’ve won. They had it in the bag but conceded a last-gasp penalty that allowed Otere Black to snatch a dramatic 23-21 victory for the visitors. The pressure had gotten to the Pretoria team. It was the clearest indication of a team lacking belief.

Losing a slew of Springboks such as Brits, RG Snyman, Lood de Jager, Duane Vermeulen, Handré Pollard and Jesse Kriel plus a host of others have left the Bulls bare. Defensively, this has left doubt and cracks where confidence in the system and trust among teammates had been last year.

They rank 11th in the competition with an 82.8% tackle success rate. That’s marginally better than the Stormers’ 82.3%, but as pointed out above, their errors – either slipped tackles or indiscipline – have come at crucial times.

Time machine malfunctions

On the other side of the equation, their predictable, ‘stampkar’ attacking style is a disappointing U-turn and easy to shut down. Rugby’s version of psychiatric ward patients bashing their heads against a wall? After all, as former Springbok captain Bobby Skinstad reminded viewers every week when he served as a SuperSport commentator, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome.

Much of their success last season, which saw them return to the play-offs for the first time since 2013, was the result of a more fast-paced offence, running into half gaps instead of taking contact and incorporating more offloads into their game. Snyman was key in this regard, the towering lock using his size and strength to hit the ball up and then freeing his long arms to create continuity with a variety of clever and excellently executed offloads.

This year, they’ve gone back into their shell, primarily because of the long-awaited return of Steyn, one of the franchise’s all-time greats, after his stellar spell at Stade Français. In theory, the record-breaking former Springbok flyhalf’s return came at the perfect time to offset the loss of Pollard to Montpellier, but it hasn’t panned out the way coach Pote Human had hoped.

The Springboks proved in winning the World Cup last year that a kick-heavy style can still be successful in the modern era, but it’s predicated on having a dominant forward pack, strong set pieces and a halfback pairing with pinpoint accuracy with the boot.

Steyn was famously part of the Bulls’ golden era and helped steer the franchise to their three Super Rugby trophies in 2007, 2009 and 2010. In 2020, however, the tactical genius hasn’t had the Midas touch. Reverting to the gameplan of the Victor Matfield-Fourie du Preez era has proved counter-intuitive for the current crop, frankly because they’re worlds removed from the star-studded squad of the late 2000s.

Burger Odendaal’s Bulls were beaten at their own game in their season-opener against the Sharks at Kings Park, resulting in a 23-15 defeat that snapped a nine-match winning streak against the men from Durban. The following week, they failed to trouble the scorers in the final North-South derby at Newlands, with the Stormers celebrating a 13-0 shutout.

Welcome winds of change

It took four consecutive losses for under-fire Human to go to plan B, that being drafting Manie Libbok in at flyhalf to run a much flatter offensive line against the Highlanders. The 22-year-old, aided by like-minded scrumhalf Embrose Papier, brought much-needed spark, speed and a degree of synergy to the backline and moving the ball to the wider channels worked wonders.

Blitzbok flyer Rosko Specman, criminally underutilised up to that point, made the most of the extra space and opportunities, racking up 110 metres en route to scoring a hat-trick. On the other wing, Springbok Cornal Hendricks harped back memories of his prime as he clocked up a South African round-high 114 metres and crossed the whitewash to help get the Bulls out of their funk.

Fullback Warrick Gelant also thrived with the freedom he was afforded to slot in and out at first receiver and bring welcome unpredictability and flair to the attack. The Springbok star’s playmaking prowess came to light and helped breathed new life into the backline, both against the Highlanders and the Reds.

With the backline having awoken from its coma, the Bulls raced into a 17-0 lead over the Reds in the first match of their Australasian tour. What ensued in Brisbane was one of the most insipid implosions in Super Rugby history. The pack, having been pummelled at scrum time, ran out of puff and the hosts scored 41 unanswered points for just their second win of the season.

Baffling bench moves backfire

The momentum had swung toward the end of the first half, with the Reds scoring two quick tries to go into the break down just 17-14, but when Human inexplicably replaced Papier and Libbok early in the second stanza, the Reds ran away with it. Ivan van Zyl and Steyn are world-class players – they have Bok blazers to prove it – but they’re conservative in nature and not what the match situation required.

It was two unnecessary and ill-fated substitutions on Human’s part – at a time where his tactical acumen is being questioned – especially with the starting combination firing like they were. Libbok is young and prone to making basic mistakes at this stage of his career, mostly when it comes to kicking out of hand, but the former Junior Springbok got his team on the front foot with his attacking abilities and there shouldn’t be a seemingly pre-determined plan in place to relieve the rising star of his pivotal duties in the second half.

The Bulls scored 10 of their 14 tries in the last two fixtures, tying them with the Lions in 14th place. Had it not been for the forced change in approach, they would’ve been well below the Highlanders (11) as the team with the least amount of tries, and it’s made for better reading in other attacking areas as well.

They’ve bumped themselves up to seventh in line breaks along with the Rebels on 63 and 10th in defenders beaten (128) and offloads (36, equal with the Chiefs). Even so, they remain one of the primary teams who play without the ball. With 610, they’re 13th when it comes to carries (the Reds have made the most runs with 882) and 12th in metres gained (2,115), a low return that underlines their work harder, not smarter affliction.

White knight

Strategically, Human is now seemingly in two minds, but the writing’s apparently already on the wall for the old-school head coach. According to Afrikaans newspaper, Rapport, negotiations to lure Jake White to Loftus as director of rugby are at advanced stages. Human’s contract expires after this year’s Currie Cup and it would be up to White, should he fill the vacancy left by Alan Zondagh, whether Human stays or goes.

Rapport added that White, to their knowledge, holds Human in high regard, so he could yet survive the axe, but either way, the 2007 World Cup-winning Springbok coach is bound to do things his way, which would see several much-needed changes at all levels of operations.

Rapport further stated that the Bulls are looking to lock in a director of rugby by March, with the preferred candidate having to immediately start with contracting procedures for 2021. How much time that’ll leave for on-field structural and tactical changes remains to be seen, so the Bulls may well meander on for the remainder of the season, which only gets tougher from here should it resume.

As it stands

Log positions:

12th overall
Fourth in South African Conference

Results:

Lost 23-15 to Sharks
Lost 13-0 to Stormers
Lost 23-21 to Blues
Lost 39-24 to Jaguares
Beat Highlanders 38-13
Lost 41-17 to Reds

Remaining fixtures:

Waratahs (a)
Hurricanes (a)
Chiefs (a)
Lions (h)
Sunwolves (h)
Brumbies (h)
Lions (a)
Sharks (h)
Jaguares (a)
Stormers (h)

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