Doubling down on a one-dimensional approach may do the Vodacom Bulls more harm than good in the long run, writes JON CARDINELLI.
The Bulls were the best South African team on show in the 2019 Vodacom Super Rugby tournament. The early-season wins against the Stormers and Sharks highlighted the versatility of their pack and the potency of their backline.
They suffered a few significant lapses en route to the playoffs, and yet their performance in the quarter-final loss to the Hurricanes was testimony to the group’s physical and mental growth.
In an ideal world, they would have retained the spine of that team and continued to build. As it was, they lost their flyhalf and general Handre Pollard. They lost the combative physicality and breakdown expertise of Duane Vermeulen, and they lost the vision and offloading ability of RG Snyman.
They lost many more Springboks and senior players, and ultimately they lost the means to mount a serious challenge for the 2020 title. The ongoing quest toward a more complete approach suffered a significant setback.
We’re now two games into their 2020 campaign, and it’s fair to say that the new-look side has failed to meet the most modest of expectations. The Bulls have recorded away losses to the Sharks and Stormers, and have failed to register a single try in 160 minutes of rugby. Last week at Newlands, they struggled to create opportunities and finished the contest with zero points.
Coach Pote Human and captain Burger Odendaal were at a loss to explain the performance at a media conference held after the north-south derby. The set piece has been the Bulls’ strength over the past two weeks, and with Morne Steyn in the saddle at 10, they have often played themselves into good field positions.
Unfortunately, they just haven’t been able to convert any of that dominance into points.
It’s not a new problem for the Bulls. John Mitchell instilled a new mindset while he was at the franchise, and we saw Human building on those structures when he became head coach last year.
The drive to play a more balanced game, however, was often compromised by handling errors and poor decision-making at crucial moments. It’s for these reasons that the Bulls, for all their star personnel and intent, finished 2019 with a series of disappointing attacking stats.
Human has publicly stated that he will persist with Mitchell’s template. The performances in the past two rounds, however, have been more pragmatic in nature. Conditions may have dictated such an approach in the humid climes of Durban, but one wonders if Steyn and company didn’t overplay their tactical-kicking hand in Cape Town.
It’s going to be interesting to see how the team responds. They could retreat into their shells and persist with a risk-averse brand in an attempt to get their first win of the season. Alternatively, they could embrace a more ambitious approach or, at the very least, vary their tactics. What we saw at Newlands last Saturday was all too predictable and – without taking anything away from the Stormers’ effort – easier to defend against.
They have blown a couple of try-scoring opportunities already this season. Steyn, normally a reliable goal-kicker, has missed some important chances.
The overall decision-making has been poor. Odendaal can’t be called conservative for turning down several goalable penalties in the second half at Newlands. The right call in that situation, however, may have been to kick for goal and chip away at the deficit. There was no need to gamble on a lineout at a time when more than a quarter of the contest remained and the hosts were just 13 points ahead.
The Bulls have a bye this weekend. For the third straight week, they will earn zero log points. They will be under pressure to play catch-up when they resume with a fixture against the resurgent Blues at Loftus Versfeld in round four.
One would hope that they embrace a bolder and more complete brand of rugby – the kind of approach that made them a force in 2019 . They will not challenge the better Australasian teams however – and they will ultimately they wont edge closer to another title win – until they show more ambition and accuracy.
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