The Vodacom Bulls start their campaign with a trip to the Sharks this Friday. JOHN GOLIATH looks at their chances ahead of the new season.
The Bulls finished fifth overall and second in the South African conference last season, but they have been crippled by the loss of key Springboks to overseas clubs. The departure of flyhalf Handre Pollard and superstar locks Lood de Jager and RG Snyman are massive blows for the Pretoria side, while Duane Vernmeulen’s experience and quality will also be missed at the back of the scrum.
However, the Bulls signed a few experienced players to fill the void, with Vodacom Super Rugby-winning No 10 Morne Steyn back in the kraal. Juandre Kruger is also back in the second row after a stint in Europe, while former Lions lock Andries Ferreira is likely to start alongside the former Bok No 5. The Bulls also signed former Scotland No 8 Josh Strauss.
The former champs do have a nice mix of exciting stars and experience throughout the team, but the challenge is going to be getting this team to gel following the loss of the core leadership team. They need to find their rhythm quickly and get good results to try to get the Loftus faithful back to the stadium after attendance figures fell below the 10,000 mark.
The Bulls start with away matches against the Sharks and Stormers, before being challenged by the Blues, Jaguares and Highlanders at home. However, they will play five of their last seven matches at home, which could help them get into the playoffs.
Seniors they will depend on …
The former Blitzbok flyer had a fabulous comeback season following a couple of years out of the game with a heart issue. He played at outside centre during the SuperHero Sunday hit-out against the Lions, a position in which he starred for Boland in the past. Hendricks remains a very good finisher and a player with a lot of skill and game awareness. He is going to be a key man in the heart of that Bulls backline.
The Bulls tighthead had one of his best-ever years, and was regarded as one of the top No 3s in the world in 2019. He was very good during the Bulls’ Super Rugby campaign, and then shone for the Boks in the Rugby Championship before his World Cup was prematurely ended with a hamstring injury. Nyakane is one of the new breed of tightheads, who can scrum really well but also do a lot of work around the park.
Others who can shine …
The dynamic prop was unlucky not to make the Boks’ World Cup squad, but he will have a chance to fight for the green-and-gold No 1 jersey following the retirement of Tendai ‘Beast’ Mtawarira. Gqoboka is a powerful operator in the scrum, while his work rate around the park is also incredible. This could be the season where he takes his game to the next level.
The scrumhalf didn’t quite kick on after a wonderful 2018 where he performed with a couple of cameos off the bench for the Boks. A couple of untimely injury niggles didn’t help his cause, but it’s time for the Bulls man to go back to the basics after missing out on World Cup selection. Papier has a lot of X factor, but he needs to work on his cleaning and box-kicking. If he can get that right, he will be a star.