The quality of the Bulls' performance against the Sharks suggests their transition phase may be less painfully navigated than first suspected, writes RYAN VREDE.
Around six weeks ago I wrote that the Bulls should brace for a season of struggle. My position hasn't changed after their superb defeat of the Sharks, who are among the tournament's strongest contenders for the title. I still think they'll struggle to make the play-offs.
However, my estimation of the longevity of that struggle has changed. There was enough in their victory at Loftus against a Springbok-laden opponent to offer hope of a steady recovery from the difficult situation the exodus of senior players left them in.
I certainly didn't expect them to stand up to the Sharks' physical onslaught in the manner they did. The Durban franchise possesses strike runners who would make any of the tournament's elite sides' 23-man squad. They've eroded the resistance of better sides than the Bulls, and will do so often as the tournament progresses. The ability to take the sting out of this facet of the Sharks' play was the cornerstone of the Bulls' success, while their ability to impose their will on the Sharks on attack often amplified their threat.
To rebound from a 31-16 first-round battering against the Sharks in the fashion they did on Saturday is impressive and hints at this Bulls squad having absorbed the lessons that match (and subsequent ones) offered and used it to improve. This is always a encouraging characteristic of sides in transition, one those who develop into consistently good sides share.
From an individual perspective there appears to have been a decision to tap into more of Francois Hougaard's strengths as a scrumhalf – ie, maximising what he offers through his running and distribution – as opposed to trying to turn him into a clone of Fourie du Preez. In the latest edition of SA Rugby magazine I plead for Hougaard to either be given the freedom to play to his strengths (within their tactical framework) or be shifted to the wing. I still feel he would be more effectively deployed in the latter position, but if I were to settle, it would be for Hougaard being deployed at scrumhalf in the manner he is now.
He has combined well with Jacques-Louis Potgieter, whose experience and coolness under pressure makes him an asset in the context of the Bulls' current state of evolution. Furthermore, Victor Matfield's performance graph continues to curve upwards.
There are youngsters whose performances have been deeply encouraging, none more so than Jacques du Plessis, who, while not unique in form and style as a Bulls blindside flanker, certainly boasts the potential to be as effective as some of the best who have worn that shirt.
Home performances of the ilk that trumped the Sharks must become commonplace. It is the key to them staying in the play-off conversation. The Chiefs will be another stern test of their tactical, physical, technical and mental constitution this weekend. A defeat wouldn't be a travesty, but the manner of any such defeat is important. They cannot regress dramatically from their performance against the Sharks.
Neither would I be surprised if they won. Following that fixture they embark on a tour that pits them against the Hurricanes, Highlanders, Waratahs and Force. It is an easier draw than they've had in years. Two wins from four would be a decent return, but there's a chance they could better that.
Dealing with injuries, which are inevitable, will be their biggest obstacle going forward. Their squad is thin on quality in depth and key players going down for extended periods and in clumps will seriously undermined their campaign. If they are somehow spared this affliction, there's enough to suggest the Bulls won't become irrelevant in a play-off discussion, something their bitter rivals the Stormers cannot claim.
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