Frans Ludeke needs to be astute, Pieter Rossouw has to refine their attacking play and the Australasian tour must be good if the Bulls are to replicate their success of 2007.
A poor title defence in 2008 means even the most fiercely committed Bulls supporters have lowered their expectations for the coming season. However, a glance at their squad, which boasts 13 Springboks – five of whom are first-choice picks in their positions at Test level – suggests that to underestimate their title chances would be foolish.
Little has changed in their attacking and defensive structures and their personnel have stayed largely the same over the last two seasons. The Bulls currently have all but six of the match 22 who played in the 2007 final in their current squad and could field nine of the run-on 15 from that memorable evening at Kings Park. That figure would have been 10 had Victor Matfield not been sidelined with injury.
Continuity is crucial to any successful side. The Crusaders bear testament to this. During their period of dominance their squad has undergone minimal changes, and when those changes have come, rarely where they in key positions.
The players who have replaced the departed Derick Hougaard, Wikus van Heerden, Gary Botha and Johan Roets, all of whom played crucial roles in the team’s success in 2007, may lack experience but are equally talented, and in some cases better players.
There are, of course, factors beyond the quality of your squad which determines your success or failure. The three mentioned in the introduction will be decisive and the astuteness of Ludeke, both tactically in his in man-management, is the most important.
While most at Loftus will deny it, Ludeke still operates under the shadow of former head coach Heyneke Meyer. The comparisons will continue until he attains sustained success with this side. And rightfully so. The Bulls players and supporters have a legitimate right to expect the man who filled the void left by Meyer to continue their success, particularly since he inherited the squad Meyer had spent years building and most of whom are in the prime of their career.
However, whether that expectation is a realistic one is a different question altogether. Meyer was a special coach, whose skills transcended mere tactical and technical knowledge of the game. His greatest strength was his intimate knowledge of the technical and mental strengths and weaknesses of each member of his squad, and he had an ability to maximise the former while circumventing the latter.
Reports from within the Bulls camp suggest that Ludeke pales in comparison to Meyer in this regard. But to expect him to compare favourably is unfair given that Meyer has almost 23 years experience and a degree in psychology. What Ludeke has do to, however, is gain a full understanding of why what Meyer did worked and look to replicate that, even if it is with the aid of consultants. There is no shame in acknowledging your shortcomings as a coach and seeking ways to compensate for those.
Like Ludeke, Rossouw too has massive expectations created by his predecessor. In 2007 Meyer recruited Australian Todd Louden, who had an immediate impact on their attacking play. They scored 45 tries in the league phase, second only to the Crusaders (47). They’ve started well from an attacking perspective in 2009 and the key will be to keep improving as the tournament progresses. Louden’s success was based on the fact that he didn’t neglect the Bulls’ traditional strength, their powerful forwards. Instead, he equipped those players and others with the knowledge and skills to complement their strengths. The result was intelligent bulldozers. Rossouw appears to have a similar philosophy.
Finally, it goes without saying that success on the Australasian leg of the tour is crucial. In 2007 the Bulls won three of their five tour matches – a South African record. They beat the Brumbies, Waratahs and Highlanders and lost to the Crusaders and Hurricanes. If they come close to the ceiling of their potential there’s nothing to prevent them from improving that record, particularly since the Canes have been dreadfully inconsistent and the Saders are in transition. If you note that the Bulls haven’t lost a home game after returning from tour for three years, you realise how crucial a good tour is to their title charge.
Most consider the Bulls to be only an outside shot at Super 14 glory. But history holds many lessons for them and if they’re diligent students, they could defy expectations.
By Ryan Vrede