The problems at Loftus are greater than indifferent early season form, writes MARK KEOHANE in Business Day newspaper.
How else does one explain a second home defeat?
Something is not right. The physical intensity, synonymous with any successful Vodacom Bulls Super Rugby or Currie Cup campaign, is absent.
The mongrel is missing. The opening quarter stampede has been gone for some time.
The Bulls were my favourites to take the South African conference. I also backed them to be more a contender than pretender for this season’s Super Rugby title.
Yet they’ve looked awful in losing two matches in succession at home – and in both matches the Stormers and Hurricanes respectively have physically owned the Bulls.
SuperSport analyst and former Springbok coach Nick Mallett questioned the Bulls' recruitment policy after the defeat against the Stormers, and asked questions of a set piece that lacked potency in the scrum and was surprisingly vulnerable in the lineout.
The lineout woes are a surprise, given Victor Matfield’s presence, but it could also be Matfield’s presence that's adding to the woes at scrum time.
Matfield has never been renowned as a strong scrummager, but the Bulls have never struggled quite as much in the scrums, as has been the case in the last two matches.
The Stormers are a strong physical unit, but it took some getting used to seeing the Hurricanes shoving the Bulls off the ball and seeing the Canes physically superior in the collisions.
The Canes have always had a reputation for possessing backline players with brilliance and individual flair, but seldom have they been spoken of as a unit that physically causes problems.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Canes pack so comfortable in a visit to Loftus. Equally, a Bulls pack so timid and so easily dealt with.
The talk of the Bulls being in a rebuilding phase is absolute nonsense. Coach Frans Ludeke used 12 Springboks against the Stormers and the same mixture of experience and youth started against the Hurricanes.
There are some great individuals in the Bulls lineup, from veteran Bok Matfield to flyhalf Handré Pollard. But as a unit, there's very little going on and I agree with Mallett that it starts with the absence of something special in the front row.
The front-row woes aren’t the only reason the Bulls are struggling and the lack of results can’t be attributed exclusively to limitations in player depth.
The Bulls, on balance, have one of the better squads in the competition and they should not be winless after two home games.
I don’t see them recovering enough to make a play for a top-six finish unless there's a change in attitude and also a change in game-plan approach.
The Stormers, for a second successive week, showed enough to get the win, although their failure to get a four-try bonus point against the Blues is rightly a talking point when playing against 14 men for 55 minutes.
The Blues showed greater commitment and application when reduced to 14 but the Stormers, at home, and very comfortable in the set phases, didn’t offer much on attack.
The Stormers were particularly good in the last hour against the Bulls in the season’s opener but this has to be put into context after the Bulls' continued struggles against the Canes last Friday evening.
The form guide will only come into play after four or five weeks of the tournament and the second week provided as many surprises as week one, if historical tournament standing is the barometer.
One result that wasn’t surprising was the Sharks' easy win against the Lions, who again look nothing like the team that blossoms in the Currie Cup.
There is a distinct difference in quality between Super Rugby and Currie Cup and there's also a huge difference when the Sharks play with their current Springboks, especially captain Bismarck du Plessis.
The Lions, less than four months ago, scored 50 points against the Sharks in a home Currie Cup semi-final. But the Sharks didn’t have their contracted Springboks available, and with no such limitations in Durban, the Sharks were a 50-point better team.
The abysmal conditions should have aided the Lions, but Du Plessis produced a master class in the collisions and with the Sharks captain always on the front foot, the Lions never threatened victory.
The Lions, like the Bulls, are without a win in the competition. And like the Bulls, the answers to a winning formula aren’t that obvious.
Photo: Anne Laing/HSM Images