Bulls lack mongrel of old

The Vodacom Bulls embarrassed themselves in Auckland with a limp and largely gutless performance at the tackle point, writes JON CARDINELLI.

So much was made about the make-up of this Bulls team in the lead-up to the fixture against the Blues. A colleague of mine, who happens to be a long-time Blues fan, cringed when he saw the names in the Bulls' starting pack.

As many as seven Springboks, including giants such as Victor Matfield and Adriaan Strauss. Then a star-studded backline, the best the Bulls could field this season. Surely the Bulls would blow away a team like the Blues? My mate from Auckland certainly seemed to think it was a sure thing.

I also felt the Bulls would overpower and out-manoeuvre the Blues. Indeed, anybody who had studied the stats before the game could have told you that the Bulls would target the Blues' lineout. While the game lived up to expectations in that sense, the Bulls squandered that set-piece advantage and lost the battle in the latter phases.

This is perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the Bulls’ performance in Auckland. The Blues were clearly up for a physical scrap at the gainline and breakdown. For some reason, the Bulls were less so. 

Perhaps the Bulls' tight five did underperform at the gainline, but it would be foolish to alter that combination at this stage. The Bulls lineout has always been a factor, but the scrums have certainly improved since Marcel van der Merwe has been backed at No 3.

While most of the team lacked the necessary fight and attitude at the breakdown, it was the Bulls' loose trio that disappointed most. The cleanouts at the attacking rucks were weak, and often the Blues managed to stifle the flow of possession or win the ball back. Defensively, the Bulls didn’t do enough to slow the ruck recycle of the Blues, and this is why the hosts enjoyed great front-foot ball.

Rudy Paige and Handré Pollard have come in for criticism following their performances against the Blues. Again, only part of it is justified. Their execution and decision-making was not up to standard. However, one needs to examine the reasons for why they fared so poorly.

The Bulls backs spent the majority of the game behind the gainline. The only time Paige and Pollard were not under pressure was when the Bulls had a scrum or a lineout. When the game moved to the second phase and beyond, the Bulls halfbacks either battled to impose themselves on attack or struggled to contain the Blues on defence.

On paper, the back row of Lappies Labuschagne, Arno Botha and Pierre Spies looks a well-balanced and potentially dangerous combination. However, as we witnessed at Eden Park recently, there's not enough mongrel in that trio. For the Bulls to win the set pieces so convincingly and then lose the tackle so badly … well, clearly those players whose primary role is the security of possession aren't doing their jobs.

Spies is at his best when the game is loose, or when he is playing behind a dominant pack. Ideally, you’d want to see a man of his athletic gifts receiving the ball in space, not competing at the breakdown. He was drawn into the latter battle against the Blues, and was penalised on several occasions.

Labuschagne failed to provide the required impact, as did Botha. It’s clear that Labuschagne is nowhere near as influential as Deon Stegmann at the breakdown. The Bulls’ physical effort also seemed to lift when Jacques du Plessis was introduced at blindside flank in the second half.

No doubt there will be plenty of talk about the Bulls’ tactics over the next week or so, but they didn’t lose in Auckland because they kicked the ball when they should have run it. The Bulls lost the match because they lost the physical battle. It’s unacceptable considering the personnel at their disposal. There should be consequences.

The Bulls will need to change their attitude if they are to pick up a couple of wins Down Under and salvage their season. They won’t win the Super Rugby title through set-piece supremacy alone. They need to start hurting the opposition at the gainline and breakdown.

The challenge doesn’t get any bigger in that respect than a match against the Chiefs in Hamilton. The two-time champs don’t boast the best set pieces, but are formidable in the tackle area. The Bulls will lose by a lot more than five points this coming weekend if they don’t approach the contact situations with a bit of guile and a lot of grunt.

Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images

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Jon Cardinelli