Preview: Vodacom Bulls

There’s good news and bad news for long-suffering Bulls fans, writes JON CARDINELLI in his SA Rugby magazine preview of the Bulls.

The good news is that the best-performing South African side of the 2019 season has received a significant financial boost with billionaire Patrice Motsepe buying a major share in the franchise. One would expect the Bulls to be able to recruit top players.

The bad news is the Bulls will go into the 2020 campaign with a severely depleted squad. Schalk Brits retired in the wake of the 2019 World Cup, while other senior Springboks such as Duane Vermeulen, Handre Pollard, Lood de Jager and Jesse Kriel opted to further their careers overseas. Bok locks RG Snyman and Jason Jenkins won’t be available this season, while experienced forwards Thembelani Bholi, Jannes Kirsten, Hanro Liebenberg and Roelof Smit have left Pretoria.

Last year, the Bulls exceeded expectations by securing two draws in New Zealand and a win in Australia during the conference stage. While they lost home games they should have won, and suffered severe beatings at the hands of the Chiefs and Crusaders, they still managed to finish the regular season at the top of the South African pile. The Bulls were second only to the Jaguares in the South African conference.

What’s more, coach Pote Human’s side became the first Bulls team to qualify for the playoffs since 2013. Despite the extensive travel demands leading up to the quarter-final in Wellington, the Bulls dug deep to push the more-fancied Hurricanes close. Indeed, they may have scored one of the biggest upsets in Super Rugby history if one or two decisions had gone their way in the dying stages. They would also have ended South Africa’s losing streak in New Zealand-based playoffs.

While significant improvements were made, the Bulls battled to strike the right balance in their approach. Human’s side finished 10th in the tournament for tries scored, which is unsurprising when you consider they were 14th on the list of run metres and ninth in linebreaks.

The Bulls also made more handling errors than any other team on show. Ultimately, they were their own worst enemies as they squandered what few opportunities they had. The kicking stats – the second-most kicks from hand and fourth-most kick metres – suggest they were a team that sought to spend most of the contest in opposition territory. This approach resulted in a lot of penalty goals, but did not yield nearly enough tries.

The Bulls produced mixed results on defence. There were times when they fired to upset more-fancied opposition teams at the breakdown and instances when the backs moved quickly to shut down the opposition scrumhalf and flyhalf. However, as seen in the clashes with the Chiefs and Crusaders, there were too many examples of the defence faltering to concede metres and points. A late lapse in the match against the Jaguares in Pretoria cost them a crucial win.

Juandre Kruger, Morne Steyn – two players who were central to the Bulls’ success in 2013 – and Josh Strauss have returned from Europe to lend a hand. It remains to be seen how Human will use these players. While the Bulls will need the experience of Steyn in the big games, Human should also be mindful of the fact that flyhalf Manie Libbok has to be backed sooner rather than later. Libbok played understudy to Pollard for much of last season.

The Bulls have been done no favours by the draw in 2020. They will face the Sharks and Stormers away from home before having their first bye. After hosting the Blues, Jaguares and Highlanders, they will fly to Australasia to play the Reds, Waratahs, Hurricanes and Crusaders in successive weeks.

Their playoff qualification hopes may hinge on a good start to the campaign.


Lizo Gqoboka was one of the standout South African players in the 2019 Super Rugby tournament. The loosehead prop went on to make his debut for the Springboks against Australia in the Rugby Championship and narrowly missed out on a place in the World Cup squad. Gqoboka, along with national teammate Trevor Nyakane, will have a key role to play in the scrum for the Bulls this season. His speed and ability to offload in contact will be an asset if the Bulls play a more attacking game.


Warrick Gelant played understudy to Springbok fullback Willie le Roux at the 2019 World Cup. The 24-year-old may receive more starting opportunities for South Africa in 2020 now that Le Roux is playing in Japan and may not be available for the whole Test season. A talented player with ball in hand, Gelant must try to impress the national selectors with a strong Super Rugby campaign with the Bulls. His improvement as a tactical kicker was evident in the 2019 tournament and he should be aiming to take further strides in this department.


Along with a couple other veterans, Scotland international Josh Strauss has returned to South Africa to offset the big losses in the back row.


Springbok flyhalf Handre Pollard has moved to Montpellier after a seven-year association with the Bulls.


John Mitchell’s departure to England in late 2018 put the Bulls on the back foot. Pote Human was elevated from his position as forwards coach just a couple of months before the 2019 campaign and did a fine job given the circumstances. It won’t get any easier for Human and co in 2020, considering the player exodus as well as the Bulls’ difficult draw. Human is on record as saying the team may struggle in the wake of such significant personnel losses.


31 January

Sharks (a)

8 February

Stormers (a)

Round 3


22 February

Blues (h)

29 February

Jaguares (h)

7 March

Highlanders (h)

14 March

Reds (a)

21 March

Waratahs (a)

27 March

Hurricanes (a)

4 April

Chiefs (a)

11 April

Lions (h)

Round 12


25 April

Sunwolves (h)

2 May

Brumbies (h)

9 May

Lions (a)

16 May

Sharks (h)

23 May

Jaguares (a)

30 May

Stormers (h)