The Bulls are set for a period of rebuilding following their deeply flawed performance against the Brumbies, writes RYAN VREDE.
Their 26-23 loss, one that featured some questionable captaincy from Dewald Potgieter, who thrice opted to set up a driving maul when he could have instructed Morné Steyn to kick for goal, represented not only the end of their Super Rugby journey, but also likely the end of their status as South Africa's pre-eminent franchise.
Bulls have lost Springboks Chiliboy Ralepelle, Zane Kirchner, Steyn, Juandré Kruger, Wynand Olivier, Dewald Potgieter, Jano Vermaak and Wilhelm Steenkamp this season. Add to that the highly promising Francois Venter's decision to join the Cheetahs in light of his prospect of limited game-time, given the emergence of Jan Serfontein. The Bulls have problems.
It comes just as they were recovering from the mass exodus of 2011, when a clutch of world-class players left the franchise or retired. This time is different, though. Then, they were left with a number of players who had learned their craft under the tutelage of the likes of Victor Matfield, Fourie du Preez and Bakkies Botha, and supplemented their losses with good recruitment and the emergence of some good young talent.
Now those players have opted to further their careers elsewhere, leaving a group desperately thin on quality and experience. Furthermore, Serfontein is the only youngster to show his aptitude for Super Rugby. Certainly, a player like Paul Willemse has good potential, as do a number of their junior international representatives, including Handré Pollard. But it is unreasonable to expect the kids to show the same level of competence Serfontein has in his rookie Super Rugby season. The vast majority of them will take at least a season to settle and adapt to the unique demands of Super Rugby.
The most significant loss is that of Steyn, who has been central to their success from a tactical and goal-kicking perspective. A total of 238 of their 448 points this season came from his boot (he boasted an 85% success rate from the kicking tee). This isn't a one-off. Indeed, for the last five years Steyn has been their leading points-scorer and has won many high-pressure games with his goal-kicking. To underline his value, Steyn's boot has contributed 1 176 of the
2 434 points the Bulls have scored in Super Rugby since 2008 (the first season he started playing regularly). That's just over 48% from a single player.
Worryingly for them, there is no ready-made replacement, as was the case when Steyn began his succession of Derick Hougaard in 2008. Neither Louis Fouché nor Pollard (on the evidence of his performances for the Baby Boks and Bulls' junior teams) bring with them any degree of certainty in filling the void Steyn leaves.
With Japan rapidly entrenching itself as the destination of choice for the southern hemisphere's elite players and others either heading for Europe or settled at their local franchises, the market is thin. There just aren't enough available players of the experience and quality the Bulls require.
A quick scan of the market has Demetri Catrakilis as a player who meets the criteria the Bulls will look for in a pivot. With the Kings in grave danger of losing their Super Rugby status, Catrakilis could consider pursuing his career elsewhere. His tactical game has improved markedly, while his goal-kicking challenges Steyn's for accuracy and consistency.
Elsewhere, they would do well to lure back the likes of Botha, Danie Rossouw and Du Preez, among others, for the 2015 season, with the incentive of putting themselves in a better position to contest for a place in the Springboks' World Cup squad.
The outlook isn't completely bleak. The Bulls have excellent playing structures and a culture that endeavours to give their players the best possible chance of success. But they will struggle to be a force in Super Rugby for the next couple of years. There's no shame in that. They are rebuilding and their performances in that period must be measured against that reality.
Photo: Steve Hagg/backpagepix
Super Rugby preview: Sharks
The Sharks want to play more attacking rugby during the 2015 Vodacom Super Rugby season.
Another Super snooze awaits
Vodacom Super Rugby in its current format offers nothing to be excited about and the expanded version in 2016 will do nothing to invigorate a waning brand, writes RYAN VREDE.
Super Rugby preview: Cheetahs
The Cheetahs could struggle again in this year's tournament after a mass exodus of players.