Bulls in big trouble

The Bulls are facing a season that could get uglier than their diabolical 2008 campaign and Frans Ludeke seems powerless to stop it, writes RYAN VREDE.

I praised Ludeke for his contribution to two Super Rugby titles (2009 and 2010) and maintain that he deserves recognition. However, the degree to which he shares in the plaudits needs to be established. Ludeke inherited not only a team, but an entire structure that ran throughout the union's sides. Heyneke Meyer had rebuilt the Bulls from the humiliating period in the early to late 2000s, forging them into a formidable opponent with players of the highest quality. Their subsequent success was largely attributable to that foundation.

Having won the Super Rugby title in 2007, Meyer, frustrated at the the influence of amateur administrators and the region's clubs on the professional arm, stepped down that year. Ludeke was recruited in a decision that was widely criticised, given his poor showings while coach of the Lions. It didn't take long for Ludeke's limitations to be exposed. The 2008 Super Rugby campaign was a disaster. The defending champion Bulls won just six of 13 matches, finishing 10th out of 14 teams.

Some astute recruiting followed in late 2008, and those players would combine superbly with the existing senior core and youngsters who had come of age, to win back-to-back titles. That feat was achieved primarily with Ludeke overseeing the implementation of an existing blueprint (my understanding is that his efforts to imprint his own stamp on the team failed badly and were ditched when results went south), which one the Bulls' players, most notably Fourie du Preez and Victor Matfield, would implement with the Springboks in 2009 after Peter de Villiers's disastrous attempts to turn them into a free-running side the year before. Ludeke did very little actual group or personalised coaching, or formulation of tactics. He didn't need to.

Now he finds himself in a position where that will be critical to the strength of their challenge. His aptitude in this regard should worry Bulls fans.

Talent of Pollard's calibre is best nurtured in an environment that is populated by very good, very experienced players

The recent exodus of senior players, the second in three years, combined with long-term injuries to key players, including captain Pierre Spies, will see the Bulls' campaign built largely on youngsters, senior players of average ability or ones suffering performance slumps. It is clear that Ludeke doesn't have the personnel to continue with the territory-based pressure game that has been so successful for them in the past. He needs to adapt the strategy to maximise the strengths of his existing squad, not try to force square pegs into round holes.

Most notably, the loss of Morné Steyn to Stade Français has robbed the Bulls of a player who has scored nearly 50% of their points since 2008. Having hoped Louis Fouché would defy expectations and settle quickly as their premier pivot, Ludeke has now turned to Jacques-Louis Potgieter, a journeyman whose career has been unremarkable.

Privately, Ludeke will hope Potgieter can keep it tidy. He isn't a flyhalf you build a successful campaign around. The plan is that Handré Pollard, benched for this weekend's game against the Lions, develops into that player. However, talent of his calibre is best nurtured in an environment that is populated by very good, very experienced players and a coach who has the technical and man-management skill to consistently extract the best out of him.

Simply put, I don't believe Pollard will realise his immense potential at the Bulls. For him to grow into the asset he has the potential to be for the Springboks, he needs to be a Sharks player while their current group are together under the guidance of Jake White.

The potential exists for the Bulls to re-sign the core of players that took them to their three titles, although it is a long shot. A year with players like Du Preez, Danie Rossouw, Bakkies Botha, Gurthrö Steenkamp, Wynand Olivier and Steyn (among others) would buy them time to recruit similarly strong replacements and give their young understudies an opportunity to be educated by some of the best in their position in the game's history. If this is sounding like I'm clutching at straws, it is exactly that. I'm trying to illustrate the depth of the Bulls' problems at this stage.

The 23 named for their derby with the Lions has a decidedly mediocre look to it. It is arguably the weakest squad they've had in nearly a decade. Ominously, there's little quality in depth beyond that 23. Their game plan is not effective in the context of the personnel they have and their coach doesn't appear to have the competency to steer them out of this stage of their journey.

The Bulls are in big trouble.

Photo: Gerhard Steenkamp/BackpagePix

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Ryan Vrede