The Vodacom Bulls forwards and halfbacks have plenty to prove in their must-win clash against the Waratahs on Saturday, writes JON CARDINELLI.
What’s happened to the Bulls over the past month or so?
Earlier this year, captain Lood de Jager spoke about restoring some pride to the Bulls’ battered brand. The team, said De Jager, needed to lose the habit of firing one week and then faltering the next.
The Bulls haven’t finished in the top half of the overall standings nor qualified for the playoffs since 2013. De Jager, a regular squad member in recent campaigns, said that the team put itself under pressure when it lost some early games that it should have won.
This led to the side playing catch-up late in the competition, and altering their tactics as a result.
Every team bar the Crusaders and Hurricanes have battled for consistency in 2019. Pote Human recently described the side’s five-from-nine return as ‘not good enough’, yet the Bulls are one of two teams in the South African conference with a win record of greater than 50%.
One cannot help but feel that the Bulls have failed to make the most of their chances in the first 11 rounds, though. They’re now in a precarious position ahead of next week’s clash against the Crusaders and the subsequent four-game tour of Australasia.
The game against the Waratahs in Pretoria is a must-win. Unfortunately for the Bulls, the Waratahs will also come to Loftus Versfeld on Saturday with a point to prove after losing to the Sharks.
The Bulls lived up to the pre-season hype when they thrashed the Stormers 40-3 in round one. They went on to claim a drought-ending victory against the Lions at Ellis Park two weeks later.
The return to a more pragmatic approach paid dividends as the forwards fought to win the gainline and the halfbacks sought to vary their attacking play and keep defences guessing.
Yet here we are, 11 rounds into the tournament, and the Bulls have slipped down the overall rankings. The stats suggest that they’ve become more conservative – and most significantly, less effective – as the season has progressed.
The Bulls have the most accurate lineout in the tournament. They rank fourth for turnovers forced. How is it that they’ve failed to utilise that set-piece platform, or maximise turnover ball?
The Bulls rank last in the competition for tries scored (20). To put things into perspective, the trend-setting Crusaders have scored 45.
They have to make a statement this weekend at the gainline and in the phases beyond the set piece. Their backs have to convert any dominance into points. While Handré Pollard’s goal-kicking should be influential, the Bulls need to start threatening the tryline more regularly.
The Waratahs have been equally disappointing in this department. The side from New South Wales boast a great tradition of running rugby, and actually bucked a trend or two to win the tournament in 2014 via an all-out attacking approach. This year, however, they are among the least potent teams, ranking in the bottom five for points, tries and defenders beaten.
The Waratahs have the third-best tackle success rate in the tournament, though. It’s going to take something special from the Bulls to breach that defence regularly.
The Bulls have lost one of their premier strike weapons in Jesse Kriel. While the team has battled for consistency this year, the Bok outside centre has been a constant threat.
The onus is on the Bulls forwards to front up this week. They were manhandled by the Stormers at Newlands, and will have a lot to prove against one of the more physical Aussie packs.
It would be great to see the Bulls backs varying their play as they did in the round one clash against the Stormers. One wonders, however, if scrumhalf Ivan van Zyl can provide the kind of service from the base that is needed to trouble a defensive unit like the Waratahs.
Indeed, it’s somewhat puzzling to note that Embrose Papier – who finished 2018 as the Springboks’ second-choice scrumhalf – has not been included in the match 23 for a game of this importance.
Bulls – 15 Warrick Gelant, 14 Cornal Hendricks, 13 Johnny Kotze, 12 Burger Odendaal, 11 Rosko Specman, 10 Handré Pollard (c), 9 Ivan van Zyl, 8 Duane Vermeulen, 7 Hanro Liebenberg, 6 Marco van Staden, 5 RG Snyman, 4 Jannes Kirsten, 3 Trevor Nyakane, 2 Jaco Visagie, 1 Lizo Gqoboka.
Subs: 16 Johan Grobbelaar, 17 Simphiwe Matanzima, 18 Wiehahn Herbst, 19 Thembelani Bholi, 20 Paul Schoeman, 21 Andre Warner, 22 Manie Libbok, 23 Dylan Sage.
Waratahs – TBC
Photo: Gavin Barker, BackpagePix