The Vodacom Bulls may stumble a few more times before their stampede begins, writes RYAN VREDE.
Take nothing away from the Stormers, who were excellent across key facets of play at Loftus on Saturday. In a throwback to their best form, they bossed the tackle point and created attacking opportunities in that manner. Their great rivals had no telling rebuttal, despite boasting significantly more Springboks.
For a myriad of reasons I predicted the Bulls would beat the Stormers, but I wasn't completely surprised at the result. The Bulls fielded a number of new combinations, a clutch of new players who are still being assimilated into the tactical structures and a couple who are returning from long-term injury layoffs. Their transition from the stuttering version of the themselves, to the potent force they can be, will take a couple more rounds.
They have the potential to be a formidable side when they find their groove.
A ninth-placed finish last season reflected the lack of quality and experience in their playing personnel after a mass exodus of players, their second such exodus following the one in 2011. Their game plan, if executed well, is extremely difficult to counter. Furthermore, with the addition of the likes of Adriaan Strauss, Trevor Nyakane and the promising Jessie Kriel, the continued development of Handré Pollard and the strike power Botha and Spies offer, they have a far greater degree of attacking unpredictability and punch than the class of 2014. Getting to the point where all the parts work to the benefit of the machine should be their goal at this point.
This said, the tactical incompetence and poor decision-making on show at Loftus cannot become a feature of their play in that process. There are far too many high-calibre players within their ranks for them to regress beyond the weekend's low.
Coach Frans Ludeke has a team that can challenge for a play-off spot. This should be the base expectation of the Pretoria franchise. Anything less should be seen as a gross underachievement. Ludeke, who has led the Bulls to two Super Rugby titles, will be feeling that weight of expectation. They last made the knockout rounds in 2013, losing to the Brumbies on home soil. Their disciples are demanding and can reasonably expect their team to be among the top six.
Ludeke has 132 Super Rugby matches under his belt as a coach. That experience must translate into on-field results. As the coach of a franchise of this size and potential, Ludeke should be competent enough to establish whether the personnel at his disposal fit their current tactical mould or whether a tactical shift will maximise the strengths of his players.
For now it's reasonable to extend him and his team some grace. The Stormers were simply better across all the areas that mattered, playing above themselves to expose a side in transition.
Photo: Anne Laing/HSM Images