Can the real champs please stand up?

The Bulls can’t get any worse than they were against the Reds in Brisbane.

It seems South African teams have a habit of exploding in the most spectacular way at the Suncorp Stadium. The most notable defeat in this regard has to be Australia’s 49-0 demolition of the Springboks in the 2006 Tri Nations.

The Bulls, on Saturday, were equally atrocious. They sunk to a new low in succumbing to an opponent who would struggle to compete with the top teams in the Currie Cup. This with a team that boasted 10 Springboks.

At the corresponding time in the 2007 competition the Bulls were celebrating a 19-7 victory over the Brumbies in Canberra. That performance was everything Saturday’s wasn’t: controlled, clinical, intelligent. They defended for the vast majority of the match, but did so with accuracy and patience, absorbing the pressure before capitalising on the Brumbies’ errors.

Wins over the Waratahs and Highlanders followed to give them the best tour return of any South African franchise. But a replication of the Brisbane blowout and they should prepare to become the first side to slip disgracefully from the tournament’s summit to it’s cellar in consecutive seasons.

The Bulls haven’t communicated this publicly, but after losing a host of senior players – including revered lock Victor Matfield – 2008 was always going to be a re-building season. But even that doesn’t excuse the diabolical showing we were made to endure this weekend.

Bulls supporters can, however, take solace in the fact that’s probably as bad as it’s going to get for their beloved team. The Chiefs are dreadfully inconsistent but have superior individuals who will secure them a victory in Hamilton this weekend, while the Force are nowhere near clinical enough to put 50 on the Bulls. The Blues have hit what has now become an all too familiar mid-tournament wobble, but still boast a number of game breakers capable of routinely breaching a porous Bulls defence.

Thank goodness the Bulls have already faced the Crusaders – who passed the 50 point mark against the Cheetahs without so much as contemplating a shift from third to fourth gear. That could have destroyed what little self-confidence remains in the their camp.

The Bulls went into the Reds match as favourites having seen the equally embattled Stormers put the Reds to the sword a fortnight ago. Home ground advantage was cast aside when pundits considered the clash – the Reds simply weren’t expected to beat the defending champs with the limited player resources they have at their disposal.

Passion wasn’t lacking. Everyone that pulled on a blue shirt on Saturday morning would have died for the team – to coin a popular sporting phrase. But passion alone never won them the tournament in 2007. There was guts and character blended with superb coaching, effective attacking and defensive structures and a belief that, if they touched the ceiling of their potential, they could beat anybody in the tournament.

None of those characteristics were evident against the Reds.

Outside of Matfield, Pierre Spies and Gary Botha, whose loses are massive, the core of that championship winning squad remains intact. Which begs the question – what should the dramatic slump in performance be attributed to?

The fact that the New Zealand sides are back to full strength is a major factor, but it is becoming increasingly clear that head coach Frans Ludeke is out of his depth at Super Rugby level.

It could be argued that with a similiar record the same could be said about Stormers coach Rassie Erasmus. The Stormers performances, however, have suggested that they are a team in need of time to settle under a new coaching philosophy (where Ludeke has been quoted on numerous occasions saying that he would stick to the structures former head coach Heyneke Meyer set in place). They’ve [the Stormers] generally improved as the tournament has progressed, while the Bulls have stagnated and have drawn on the false confidence that came from beating a poor Lions side three weeks ago.

The ELVs have shown up the limitations in their game plan, and they’ve failed to adapt to the requirements of the revamped game.

They desperately needed a victory to kick off the Australasian tour. What they got was a hammering, and now face a damage control exercise.

South Africa needs its champion side to front up in the coming weeks. How that will happen is unclear, but at present they’re embarrassing a nation. Can the real champs please stand up?

By Ryan Vrede