A lack of fitness has been a major contributing factor in the Bulls’ poor form this season.
Statistics reveal that their performances have fell off dramatically in the second half of matches. Of the 29 tries the Bulls have conceded, 17 (56 %) of those have come in the second half. In terms of total points conceded (230), 139 (60%) of those points have come in the second half.
Some sectors of the media and public have blamed poor defence on their atrocious run of results. While that may be true to some extent you have to look at the root cause of that problem.
Their defensive structures have remained exactly the same as those that saw them concede the fourth least tries in 2007 tournament. Criticism of defence coach John McFarland is unfounded as well. He is widely regarded as the best defensive coach in South Africa and is highly rated throughout the world.
Fitness, or a lack thereof, then has to be a major factor in their poor defensive record. An inability to maintain a high level of intensity and accuracy on defence for 80 minutes is going to cost any side, particularly with the introduction of the ELVs. The Bulls have fronted relatively well in the first half of their matches but have fallen apart when it mattered most, with ill-discipline and slipped hits a by-product of fatigue.
Forwards Bakkies Botha, Danie Rossouw and Wikus van Heerden all missed the bulk of the pre-season through injury, and they and Gurthro Steenkamp never had an opportunity to recover sufficiently after a gruelling 2007 season. That’s four of eight players in the pack running on reserve.
In the backline, Fourie du Preez, Wynand Olivier, Bryan Habana and Akona Ndugane were all regular fixtures in the Bulls’ Super 14 winning side, then all travelled to France for the World Cup. Olivier, Botha and Ndungane then joined the Springboks for the year end Test against Wales and the meaningless match against the Barbarians. Add to that mix Pierre Spies, who only returned to competitive action a fortnight ago after an eight month break and the loss of their defensive leader Victor Matfield to Toulon and you have problems.
Hilton Lobbberts was part of that group as well – meaning that eight of their preferred run-on side (excluding Lobberts) are well below the level of fitness needed to be competitive for a sustained period in Super Rugby matches.
Former head coach Heyneke Meyer warned SA Rugby that the tour would have an adverse effect on the fitness of all the Springboks, which the franchises could not afford ahead of a Super 14 that would feature laws which would make the game significantly quicker.
Yet they ignored that warning and eight of the players who were part of the match 22 against Wales either didn’t start the Super 14 (Andre Pretorius and Jaque Fourie still haven’t played), or broke down due to injury during the campaign .
Lobberts, in particular, suffered, despite not getting game time on that tour. The plan was for him to work on his strength and conditioning with the Bulls in the off season, but he came back from tour with a slight knock, which limited his involvement. During the Bulls’ pre-season fitness tests Lobberts only managed an 11 on the bleep test, which is well below the standard expected of a loose forward.
While the coaching staff, including head coach Frans Ludeke, must take responsibility for their diabolical form at present, they can be mitigated to a certain extent given that they are dealing with a core group of players still in search of full fitness.
They won’t improve as the season progresses either. For those players to improve they’ll need to be taken out of competitive action and be placed on a recovery programme designed to improve their strength and conditioning. Until then, expect the Bulls’ form graph to continue to show a gradual downward curve.
By Ryan Vrede