Handré Pollard and the Vodacom Bulls have embraced a pragmatic yet effective game plan that should be utilised by the Springboks at the World Cup, writes JON CARDINELLI.
South African rugby has come a long way over the past 18 months. While there are a number of issues in the local game – and indeed a lot of uncertainty about where the franchises and even the Test side will compete post-2020 – the return of Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber to the country has done wonders for the players’ tactical development.
It’s because of those issues – financial problems, a failure by the franchises to commit wholeheartedly to the transformation cause, as well as other issues around player management and recruitment – that South Africa will travel to Japan later this year as underdogs. It’s going to take time to implement a new system and we may only see the benefits of those changes when the British & Lions tour in 2021 and at the 2023 World Cup.
There is hope in the short-term, though. We saw that when the Boks beat the All Blacks in Wellington last year. More recently, we’ve seen individuals – and one team, namely the Bulls – making the necessary mental and tactical shift at Vodacom Super Rugby level.
The evidence suggests that the Boks have what it takes to challenge the best Test teams at the World Cup. It’s a statement that nobody would have dared to make 18 months ago in the wake of a historically poor 2016 season and further devastating results in 2017 – the 57-0 loss in Albany and the 38-3 defeat in Dublin chief among those.
The rise of the Bulls has been interesting to watch. In December, the franchise appeared to be in disarray. They couldn’t stop John Mitchell from accepting a coaching post with England, and they couldn’t find a like-for-like replacement. It’s now March, and the Bulls have claimed three South African scalps and have looked like a well-oiled Test unit.
The Bulls finished last in the South African conference in 2018. When I spoke to Lood de Jager – the captain for the 2019 season before he broke down with injury – he was honest about the fall of a once mighty empire. De Jager outlined the side’s attacking ambitions – a fire that had been sparked by Mitchell – but made it clear that 2019 would be about results rather than dazzling displays.
Many including myself felt that the Bulls needed a heavyweight coach, and that Pote Human’s elevation would not get the team to where it needed to go. The decision taken by Erasmus to help the franchise appears to be paying dividends, though, as do the signings of Schalk Brits and Duane Vermeulen. De Jager said in the pre-season that the two veterans would lift the side, and that has certainly been the case in the early rounds.
The Bulls have recovered what they lost in the early 2010s, that is the means to dominate opponents and the collisions and breakdowns. Some have described that physicality as a Bulls trait, but then you only have to look at the better teams in the world – the current Crusaders side, the All Blacks and more recently England and Ireland – to understand that physical dominance is the bedrock upon which successful campaigns are built.
The class of 2019 has offered a lot more than brawn, though. Indeed, it will be interesting to see how their new blend of power and panache stacks up against overseas opposition in the coming months. They were outplayed in Buenos Aires two weeks ago, and they haven’t had a good run of things Down Under in recent years.
That said, there are more than a few reasons for South African fans to get excited. The work-rate of the pack has been something to behold. The passing and running lines of the forwards has been New Zealand-esque.
The decision-making of Handré Pollard and his halfbacks – Embrose Papier and Ivan van Zyl – has been first-class. The Bulls have made the most kicks and kick metres after four rounds, and it’s been plain to see how competitive they’ve been in the air. Another experienced player in Cornal Hendricks has proved key in the latter area.
They haven’t scored the most tries to date, but when they have moved the ball they have worried opposition defences. Lukhanyo Am is in fantastic form at present, but then so is another special No 13 in Jesse Kriel. Warrick Gelant is another Bulls player who has given the Bulls excellent attack and kick options in the wider channels.
You just don’t know what to expect from the Bulls these days, and that is a sure sign of progress.
Earlier in the week, Erasmus addressed the media and said that the better South African teams are starting to embrace a Test mentality. He brushed aside suggestions that a drive to score more tries would bring any team success in a World Cup year.
Balance, he said, was the aim of the game. The ability to kick well and manage the big moments, he said, was going to be the difference in Japan.
How often do we see captains pointing to the touchline after they’ve won a penalty deep in opposition territory? Some commentators applaud this is as the bold decision, and reason that seven points is more valuable than three. How often, though, do we see that subsequent lineout going awry or the opposition forcing a turnover?
In 2015, I asked Vermeulen for his thoughts on this aspect of game management. The then Stormers captain gave an unpopular answer. Vermeulen wanted to take the three points when they were on offer.
Four years on, and we are witnessing a Bulls leadership group that includes Vermeulen sharing a similar sentiment and drive. It helps that Pollard is in terrific goal-kicking form – having slotted 26 out of 30 attempts to date – and has the ability to punish opposition transgressions. We saw Pollard building scoreboard pressure in this manner in the recent clash involving the Sharks.
On Saturday, Pollard delivered yet another reminder of why he will go to the World Cup as the Boks’ first-choice flyhalf. Pollard produced another tactical and goal-kicking masterclass only days after Erasmus had highlighted the importance of kicking at the global tournament.
The big statement, however, was the drop goal Pollard sank in the second half. The Boks will need that weapon in the tight playoff matches.
The Bulls will enjoy a bye in round five and then play their next seven games in South Africa. There’s good reason to talk about the Bulls in a playoff context, even at this early stage.
More significantly, there’s reason to feel upbeat about the Boks’ key players as well as the team’s chances at the World Cup. The Bulls’ performances should be taken as a sign that South African rugby is moving in the right direction.
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