John Mitchell needs to get the best out of his Bulls side, writes SIMON BORCHARDT.
The Bulls had a nightmare 2017 Super Rugby season, losing 11 matches to finish 15th on the overall standings – below the Kings. They became the first South African side to lose to the Sunwolves and suffered humiliating home defeats to the Kings and Crusaders.
Coach Nollis Marais’ position became untenable and while he was allowed to finish the campaign, the Bulls unveiled John Mitchell as their new executive of rugby with four rounds of the regular season remaining.
Marais didn’t last long as head coach of the Blue Bulls Currie Cup team either, being put on ‘extended leave’ while Mitchell took charge. The Bulls struggled early on in the competition, but grew in confidence and qualified for the semi-finals.
The Bulls impressed on attack in the domestic competition, scoring the most tries and points. They focused on ball movement rather than specific plays and the likes of Warrick Gelant were encouraged to have a go.
Their passive, drift defence was replaced with a rush-defence system that relied on linespeed. However, with the players taking time to adjust, 62 tries were leaked in 12 matches – equal second most in the league stage.
The Bulls scrum also remains a concern, although it does appear to be getting better. After conceding the fifth most scrum penalties in Super Rugby last year, they conceded the fewest in the Currie Cup.
While the Bulls’ rebuilding process will continue in Super Rugby, Mitchell will still be expected to produce better results. The Pretoria-based franchise made a poor start to their 2017 campaign and never recovered. Can they avoid a repeat in 2018?
It certainly won’t be easy. Mitchell’s men have a first-round bye before taking on two of the best teams, the Hurricanes and Lions, at Loftus. They then travel overseas to play the Reds, Chiefs and Crusaders, before facing the Stormers and Sharks back home. It certainly won’t be easy.
FORWARD TO WATCH
Springbok lock Lood de Jager was named the 2015 SA Rugby Player of the Year and joined the Bulls from the Cheetahs at the end of 2016. Big things were expected of him in the 2017 Super Rugby season, but he was a huge disappointment; so much so that he wasn’t selected for the team’s last three matches. The Bulls said it was due to a back strain, but by then Jason Jenkins and RG Snyman had established themselves as the team’s first-choice second-row combination. De Jager played a bit-part role for the Boks last year, coming off the bench three times before being given the opportunity to start against the All Blacks in Cape Town. During his 59-minute stint, he made 12 ball carries, all 12 of his tackles and secured four lineout balls. It was the type of performance the Bulls need him to make regularly in the 2018 Super Rugby tournament as the senior member of the pack.
BACK TO WATCH
Warrick Gelant will hope to carry his excellent Currie Cup form – which saw him selected for the Springboks’ end-of-year tour squad – into this year’s Super Rugby tournament. The 22-year-old fullback was his side’s biggest attacking threat in the Currie Cup, scoring the most tries (10) in the tournament, while also making the most running metres and linebreaks. Gelant was given the freedom to play his natural game and put more thought into when to run, pass and kick. He was less effective on defence – completing only 79% of his tackles – but the Bulls as a team struggled to adjust to a new defence system. Gelant started 10 matches at fullback during last year’s Super Rugby campaign and made the No 15 jersey his own in the Currie Cup. However, coach John Mitchell believes he could eventually settle at outside centre.
Blitzboks star Tim Agaba joined the Bulls from the Kings last year and started the Currie Cup semi-final against the Sharks at blindside flank. He is a skilful player and strong ball-carrier.
Jan Serfontein turned down a ‘generous’ contract extension offer from SA Rugby and the Bulls last year, opting to join French club Montpellier after the Rugby Championship. He will be missed.
Warrick Gelant, Duncan Matthews, Travis Ismaiel, Jamba Ulengo, Jade Stighling, Divan Rossouw, Burger Odendaal (co-c), JT Jackson, Francois Brummer, Jesse Kriel, Johnny Kotzé, Handré Pollard, Marnitz Boshoff, Manie Libbok, Ivan van Zyl, André Warner, Embrose Papier, Roelof Smit, Ruan Steenkamp, Hendre Stassen, Hanro Liebenberg, Jannes Kirsten, Nic de Jager (co-c), Tim Agaba, Jason Jenkins, Ruben van Heerden, RG Snyman, Lood de Jager, Aston Fortuin, Pierre Schoeman, Conraad van Vuuren, Frans van Wyk, Matthys Basson, Lizo Gqoboka, Trevor Nyakane, Jaco Visagie, Adriaan Strauss, Edgar Marutlulle.
17 February: BYE
24 February: Hurricanes (h)
3 March: Lions (h)
10 March: Reds (a)
16 March: Chiefs (a)
23 March: Crusaders (a)
31 March: Stormers (h)
6-7 April: BYE
14 April: Sharks (a)
21 April: Rebels (h)
28 April: Highlanders (h)
5 May: Stormers (a)
12 May: Sharks (h)
19 May: Jaguares (a)
26 May: Brumbies (h)
BREAK FOR JUNE TESTS
30 June: Sunwolves (a)
7 July: Jaguares (h)
14 July: Lions (a)
OTHER SA PREVIEWS
Photo: Ashley Vlotman/Gallo Images