The players, and not coach Frans Ludeke, must take responsibility for the Bulls’ shocking season.
Most people, including my colleagues Ryan Vrede and Mark Keohane, have blamed Ludeke for destroying the empire that Heyneke Meyer built. However, this is unfair when you consider how the players – and not the coach – have cost the team three victories that would have put the Bulls into fourth position on the log and not an embarrassing 11th.
Let’s examine the evidence.
Against the Sharks at Loftus, Danwell Demas knocked on over the tryline, just before half-time, when the Bulls led 6-0. With eight minutes to go in the match the Bulls led by five. Fourie du Preez broke the line and offloaded to Demas, whose knock on cost the Bulls another seven points and the match. The Sharks went on to score three quick tries to win 29-15. Can you blame Ludeke for that?
The Bulls lowest point of the season came against the Reds at Brisbane when they lost 40-8. But as Du Preez said afterwards, the result could have been different had they taken the three try-scoring opportunities that came their way inside the first quarter. However, Akona Ndungane knocked on over the tryline, after a Reds kick was charged down. JP Nel also selfishly went on his own when he had a two-man overlap out wide. Had the Bulls led 21-0 after 20 minutes, they would have probably won by 50. Is it Ludeke’s fault they didn’t?
And what about the gutting 23-21 defeat to the Blues on Saturday? Yes, the referee was rubbish and gifted the Blues one, if not two tries, but the Bulls certainly didn’t help themselves. Zane Kirchner could have claimed all five log points if he’d regathered his chip and chase late in the game. And why the hell didn’t the Bulls go for the drop goal when they had a 5m scrum with just a few minutes remaining? Instead, Pierre Spies (who otherwise had a superb game) stupidly broke from the back of the scrum and ran towards the touchline. That meant Du Preez had to use the forwards on three occasions to try and get his team back near the posts. In the end, there was one bash-up too many and the Blues won a free kick at the ruck. Was it Ludeke’s fault that his players were brainless in that pressure situation?
Ludeke’s critics love to cite his poor Super Rugby record with the Cats (three wins out of 25 matches – a 12% win rate), but conveniently forget that Meyer’s record at a similar stage of his career was even worse (one win out of 22 – a 4% win rate). Yet when Meyer was given another chance, he took the Bulls to the semi-finals in 2005 and 2006, before winning the competition in 2007. Who’s to say Ludeke hasn’t learnt from his stint with the Cats, just like Meyer did from his early days at the Bulls?
Of course, there’s a very good chance the Bulls would have struggled this year even with Meyer in charge. They have lost several key players, including the world’s best line-out jumper in Victor Matfield. They have also lost backline coach Todd Louden, who helped the Bulls score 47 tries in 15 matches last year. Those losses have weakened the team considerably.
The fact is the Bulls reached the end of a cycle in 2007, and 2008 was always going to be a difficult year for whoever coached the team. Ludeke, like Meyer, needs a lengthy period to prove himself, as well as a greater commitment from his players.
By Simon Borchardt