Victor Matfield's return alone won't be enough to ensure the Bulls are in the conversation for the title. Their poor succession planning will undermine their Super Rugby cause, writes RYAN VREDE.
Matfield's decision to come out of retirement provided a desperately needed boost in light of the exodus of senior players they experienced throughout 2013. However, even the great lock's presence, skill and experience isn't enough to supplement their losses. The squad boasts but a clutch of senior players, a collection of Springboks among them certainly, but it isn't one that has the starting quality or depth thereof for them to be considered title contenders. Indeed they have every chance of missing the play-offs altogether.
I've spoken to a number of current and former senior Bulls players, who've all conceded their disappointment at the manner in which the core of squad was lost to foreign clubs. There is a feeling that the Bulls' key decision-makers at board level dragged their heels in the re-negotiating process, and that they should be held responsible for the position the team now finds itself in regarding the calibre of players at its disposal.
My understanding is that money was not the issue. Certainly there were those (Chiliboy Ralepelle and Juandré Kruger among them) who felt it was best for their careers to take up foreign contracts. But the 2011 exodus, where a group of highly paid Springboks left the franchise, meant there was a breathing room in the budget that would have strengthened their ability to retain key players this time around. Jano Vermaak, for one, wasn't convinced of the decision to move to Toulouse, especially in light of his development with the Springboks.
In a bid to plug some holes in the squad, the Bulls paid over the odds for recruits whose return is unlikely to match the investment. The other voids are to be filled by youngsters from their junior structures, flyhalf Handré Pollard the most notable of that group. The recruitment excellence of now departed high-performance manager Ian Schwartz in conjunction with Heyneke Meyer's (current Springbok manager and coach respectively) ensured the Bulls have an enviable collection of some of the best young talent in the country. But young talent is best natured in the presence of established senior players, and the best teams in the game's history have all shared the characteristic of having a healthy balance of young and old.
Matfield's return comes with more hope than it does certainty
From the youngster's perspective, there is gold to be mined in Matfield, but him and others like Pierre Spies and Francois Hougaard will be on a mission to re-establish themselves after long lay-offs, with their potential Springbok selection demanding a level of focus that will leave little room for personal investment in the kids coming through.
Furthermore there are some notable absentees in key positions, with flyhalf being their biggest concern. Steyn's point scoring was at the heart of success in recent years. His is a massive and potentially terminal loss.
When the class of 2007 finally called time on their Loftus love affair four years later, they did so having informed the franchise of their decision well in advance. In turn the Bulls' board were able to plan for the future, covering themselves against a dramatic slump. This time it is different. Without Schwartz's boardroom acumen and way with the players, as well as the selling point of a potentially title-winning side, the negotiation of new contracts went poorly and became an increasingly arduous process. Top players are a rare commodity in the game and, with a market for them, the Bulls were always going to be in a position of weakness if they didn't get their negotiation spot on.
They didn't and now are set to reap the consequences. Matfield's return comes with more hope than it does certainty and even if he does suspend time with throwback performances and form, there's just not enough quality around him to replicate their championship-winning feats of 2007, 2009 and 2010.
King makers, yes. Kings, no.
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