The Vodacom Bulls’ outstanding execution and variation has flummoxed opposition defences in the first four rounds, writes JON CARDINELLI.
How did we get here? How have the Bulls – who finished the South African conference in last place in 2018 – won three of their first four matches in 2019?
The most recent victory against the Sharks catapulted the Bulls to the top of the South African division. While the Bulls will face sterner tests in the coming months, there is ample evidence to suggest that this team – and the attack in particular – is heading in the right direction.
The improvement at the breakdowns and collisions has been plain to see. And yet it’s been the Bulls’ handling skills and decision-making that has set them apart from the rest of the South African herd in 2019.
Do opposition teams truly know what to expect from the Bulls? That may have been the case in the past, but no longer.
This year, the Bulls have shown that they can score via a direct approach. They went through five phases against the Lions at Ellis Park in round three before Duane Vermeulen crashed over. They have also looked to use their exemplary passing and kicking to create scoring chances.
The recent derby at Loftus Versfeld witnessed an outstanding all-round showing by the men in blue. In the first three clips below, it’s plain to see how the Bulls have married brains and brawn and why they are the most complete team in the country at present.
Take note of the names that feature time and again. The progress of these Bok players, and indeed that of the Bulls collective, should please national coach Rassie Erasmus.
It’s a myth that South African teams don’t have the ability to strike from deep within their own half. In the first clip below, the Bulls have a scrum outside their 22. Instead of playing for kicking for territory or launching a contestable kick, they attack the Sharks down on the blindside.
Two Sharks are defending the blindside when the scrum packs down. The wingers and fullback have stayed back to cover the kick. There’s an opportunity for the Bulls – who have a four-on-two overlap on the far side – to make inroads, and they make that opportunity count.
What’s particularly impressive in this play is Handré Pollard’s movement and timing. The flyhalf is standing well wide of the scrum, and he takes the ball to the gainline with the intent to fix opposite number Rob du Preez.
Jeremy Ward, the Sharks’ second defender in this scenario, isn’t sure whether Dylan Sage or Jesse Kriel is going to receive the pass. Pollard throws a skip to Kriel, who takes advantage of Ward’s indecision to make the break.
The outside centre straightens. He holds the ball in both hands, thus ensuring that Makazole Mapimpi commits to stopping him. Kriel’s pass to Cornal Hendricks is perfect, and the winger makes a further 30m down the right-hand touchline.
Here’s where the Bulls get it right. Kriel completely avoids the tackle-attempt of Mapimpi and sprints upfield to support Hendricks. Like Kriel, Hendricks is running with the ball in two hands.
Sharks fullback Rhyno Smith is caught in two minds. None of his teammates has managed to get back and assist. As seen in this clip, Ward has been trailing Kriel by some distance since the Bulls No 13 made the initial break.
Kriel collects the final pass from Hendricks, and touches down.
HITTING CLOSE AND WIDE OPTIONS
Pollard has been in sublime form during the early rounds. This past Saturday, he proved a nightmare to mark and delivered some wonderfully timed passes.
In the buildup to Rosko Specman’s first try, Pollard puts Hanro Liebenberg through a hole in midfield. Liebenberg charges down towards the Sharks 22. The visitors are now scrambling to get back and set their defensive line before the Bulls can go again.
The Bulls keep their composure. They take another phase to get their attack into position. When Ivan van Zyl picks up the ball at the ruck, Lizo Gqoboka is standing flat for the short-ball option. The prop doesn’t receive the ball, but he does attract the attention of two Sharks defenders close to the ruck.
Pollard, standing very wide of Van Zyl again, takes the pass and ignores Sage running on his inside. Sage’s run keeps the Sharks from sprinting across to the touchline to help S’bu Nkosi. Replacement fullback Curwin Bosch is seen running in that direction initially, but is forced to check his run for a split-second. That makes the difference at the end of the movement.
The Bulls still have work to do from here. They’re operating at high speed, and making good decisions to ensure they beat the Sharks defenders.
Warrick Gelant has positioned himself wide of Pollard, and Specman is hugging the touchline. Du Preez shoots up as Pollard throws a flat pass to Gelant. The Bulls fullback beats the Sharks pivot with a step and then targets the space between Du Preez and Nkosi.
Nkosi finds himself in a difficult position. Instead of staying on Specman and leaving Gelant for the Sharks cover defence, Nkosi shapes to tackle the Bulls fullback himself.
Gelant delivers the pass at the crucial moment, and Specman – who has timed his run impeccably – races down the touchline to score. As we see in the clip below, it’s all happened so fast and Bosch has not made it across in time to help out.
The buildup to Specman’s second try against the Sharks is another example of the Bulls making good decisions at a high tempo. And on this occasion the forwards are as instrumental as the backs. Replacement loose forward Thembelani Bholi is the man who sparks this particular fire, not only with a ground-gaining run, but with a great decision not to pass.
In the clip below, Embrose Papier is shouting for the ball on the outside, but hasn’t seen a Sharks defender racing towards him from a 45-degree angle. It’s important that Papier shrugs off this tackle-attempt. He goes on to win the race to the next breakdown and stops the Sharks defenders from dispossessing Bholi.
The Bulls are now in a position where they have 13 men on their feet. The Sharks have a man down in back play. Three more are still trying to get back. There is a defensive line, but only on one side of the ruck.
Liebenberg assumes the role of scrumhalf without too much fuss. He’s seen the space on the left. The flanker-cum-lock throws a pass to Kriel, and it’s the speed rather than the accuracy of this pass which allows the Bulls to make further inroads.
Kriel has to stop to catch the pass, but still has time to spin round and straighten. He beats Dan du Preez for pace, and again Nkosi is caught in two minds.
The Sharks’ communication on defence wasn’t great at Loftus, and the Bulls took full advantage of the individual and collective uncertainty. Specman didn’t have to do much more than catch to score his two tries.
KICKING INTO SPACE
Opposition defences are going to have a hard time marking the Bulls this season. They have the ability to attack via a direct attack as well as in the wider channels. They also use the attacking kick to devastating effect. Pollard, Kriel and Gelant have used a chip or grubber kick to fracture defences in recent weeks. The Bulls flyhalf found his No 13 with a wonderfully-weighted chip in the opening match against the Stormers.
In the clip below, the Bulls win the lineout to set the attacking platform. The field position here – some 10m outside of the Stormers 22 – is important.
The Stormers have spread their defence and the blindside winger is quite deep and close to the right-hand touchline. After the ball is delivered to Pollard, Damian Willemse, Damian de Allende and Ruhan Nel race up to meet the Bulls No 10 at the advantage line.
The flyhalf chips the ball – on the run – over the advancing defensive line. Burger Odendaal and Kriel race past their opposite numbers, with Kriel snatching the ball before it’s had a chance to bounce.
Dillyn Leyds and company are too slow to react – or too poorly positioned – and stop Kriel from flying through for the touchdown. Kriel also has the option to pass to Odendaal, but backs himself to finish.
The Bulls have made a bright start to the 2019 season. While they will face better defensive units in the coming months, it’s encouraging to see them using all the weapons in their arsenal. As seen above, the Bulls are using every player on the park to create the attacking chance.
The other South African teams would do well to follow suit.
Photo: Muzi Ntombela/BackpagePix