• Super Rugby preview: Bulls

    The Vodacom Bulls could be set for more disappointment in 2016, writes JON CARDINELLI.

    The 2015 season was a rotten one for Bulls rugby. The Super Rugby side showed some promise in the initial stages of the competition, especially in the 31-19 victory over an All Blacks-laden Crusaders side at Loftus Versfeld. Unfortunately, they failed to build on that success in the subsequent rounds.

    They suffered four straight losses on their tour to New Zealand and Australia, and ended the Super Rugby season with a humiliating 42-29 defeat to the Cheetahs in Pretoria. It marked a sad end for the side and for long-time mentor Frans Ludeke in particular. New coach Nollis Marais battled to inspire a turnaround in the Currie Cup, as the Blue Bulls went down 23-18 to Western Province in the semi-final at Loftus.

    Marais and his lieutenants will have their work cut out for them before the 2016 Super Rugby tournament. The Bulls have lost a host of senior players and several youngsters to overseas clubs. They may battle to remedy their lineout ails now that Victor Matfield, Flip van der Merwe, Pierre Spies and Jacques du Plessis are all playing their rugby abroad.

    The Bulls are fortunate in that they will compete against the five Australian franchises and none of the stronger New Zealand sides during the regular season. However, they may find it difficult to beat the likes of the Brumbies and Waratahs, the two teams that represented Australia in the 2015 play-offs, Down Under.

    FORWARD TO WATCH
    Adriaan Strauss was one of South Africa’s leading Super Rugby players in 2013 and 2014. However, since moving from the Cheetahs to the Bulls, he has battled to make the same impact at the scrum and breakdown. The Bulls will need the Bok hooker to find form if they are to have any chance of qualifying for the 2016 play-offs. The pack has suffered significant losses in personnel, so Strauss’s leadership will be crucial. He showed his quality at the World Cup with influential performances at the set pieces and at the rucks. His ability to win turnovers on the ground could unleash a Bulls backline that features some talented finishers.

    BACK TO WATCH
    Rudy Paige was a shining light for the Bulls in an otherwise bleak 2015 campaign. The scrumhalf’s service from the base was excellent, as was the execution of his tactical kicking. Paige’s decision-making has also been hailed by none other than Fourie du Preez, one of the great Bulls and South African scrumhalves. If the Bulls pack produces a more consistent showing in 2016, the likes of Paige and Springbok flyhalf Handré Pollard will be a factor on attack. The Bulls must look to harness the attacking strengths of their halfbacks, and indeed their backline as a whole, if they are to be a force in 2016.

    PLAYERS IN
    Thembelani Bholi (Kings)
    Francois Brummer (Pumas)
    Nick de Jager (Saracens)
    Lizo Gqoboka (Kings)
    Freddy Ngoza (Cheetahs)
    Luther Obi (Kings)
    Le Roux Roets (Lions)
    Etienne Swanepoel (WP)

    PLAYERS OUT
    Jacques du Plessis (Montpellier)
    Louis Fouché (Kings)
    Francois Hougaard (Blitzboks)
    Victor Matfield (Northampton)
    Akona Ndungane (retired)
    Pierre Spies (Kinetsu)
    Flip van der Merwe (Clermont)
    Nardus van der Walt (Pumas)
    Hencus van Wyk (Manukata)
    Jurgen Visser (Kings)

    2016 FIXTURES
    27 February: Stormers (a)
    5 March: Rebels (h)
    11-12 March: BYE
    18 March: Sharks (h)
    26 March: Sunwolves (a)
    2 April: Cheetahs (h)
    9 April: Kings (a)
    16 April: Reds (h)
    22-24 April: BYE
    29 April: Force (a)
    6 May: Brumbies (a)
    14 May: Waratahs (a)
    21 May: Stormers (h)
    28 May: Lions (h)
    BREAK FOR JUNE TESTS
    2 July: Jaguars (a)
    9 July: Sunwolves (h)
    16 July: Cheetahs (a)

    PREVIOUS LOG FINISHES
    Super 12

    1996: 3rd (semi-finalists)
    1997: 8th
    1998: 11th
    1999: 12th
    2000: 11th
    2001: 12th
    2002: 12th
    2003: 6th
    2004: 6th
    2005: 3rd (semi-finalists)
    Super 14
    2006: 4th (semi-finalists)
    2007: 2nd (champions)
    2008: 10th
    2009: 1st (champions)
    2010: 1st (champions)
    Super Rugby
    2011: 7th
    2012: 5th (qualifiers)
    2013: 2nd (semi-finalists)
    2014: 9th
    2015: 9th
    Note: Played as Northern Transvaal in 1996 and 1997

    2015 RECORD
    Won: 7 (44%)
    Lost: 9

    2015 NUMBERS THAT MATTER
    30 – Lineouts stolen (Rank 1)
    37 – Tries scored (Rank 7)
    344 – Kicks from hand (Rank 8)
    271 – Defenders beaten (Rank 12)
    5,923 – Metres run (Rank 13)
    79 – Clean breaks (Rank 15)
    Source: Vodacom Rugby Stats App

    FAST FACT
    Bulls flyhalf Handré Pollard kicked out of hand 124 times in 2015, the fifth most in the tournament

    FOLLOW HIM ON TWITTER
    Jesse Kriel
    @JesseKriel15

    OTHER SA PREVIEWS
    Cheetahs preview
    Kings preview
    Lions preview
    Sharks preview
    Stormers preview

    VIDEO: New Super Rugby format explained using Bulls as example

    Photo: Lee Warren/Gallo Images

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    Jon Cardinelli