The true measure of the Bulls will come on their five-game Australasian tour.
With four wins on the bounce they couldn’t have asked for a better start after a diabolical title defence in 2008. But the Bulls must be acutely aware that talk of a play-off place is premature.
They played two weak sides in the first two rounds (the Reds and a injury-ravaged Blues) and won narrowly against the Lions and Stormers. Three of those matches have been played on home soil and the other a short trip down the road at Ellis Park.
To their credit the Bulls were clinical in burying the rubble Reds and those impostors who masqueraded as a Blues team. But their struggles against the Lions and Stormers must be a cause for concern ahead of a tour which features matches against the defending champions (Crusaders), two of last year’s semi-finalists (the Waratahs and Hurricanes) and the unpredictable Brumbies. They should, however, negotiate the Highlanders in Dunedin with relative ease.
On their championship-winning run of 2007 they set a new South African record for tour wins by beating the Highlanders, Brumbies and Waratahs. And while they were comprehensively outplayed in Christchurch, they did have opportunities to win in Wellington.
There are six changes to the squad who performed so well on that tour , but the current touring group certainly still has the potential to replicate that success.
Bryan Habana was sensational on that tour, but he is only likely to be available for the second tour match after breaking his hand against the Lions in round three. Even when he returns his form has hardly been inspiring.
However, Sharks winger JP Pietersen has shown that form can turn with one try. He failed to cross the whitewash in the 2008 tournament, but has now scored four in four matches and there has been a marked improvement in his all-round play. The Bulls will be hoping for a similar turnaround for their prize asset.
The tour will also test coach Frans Ludeke’s ability to keep his side winning away from the comfort of Loftus. He has had a season to settle into the role after taking over shortly before the commencement of the 2008 campaign, and he claims to have learnt valuable lessons from last year’s tour, which yielded no wins.
The Bulls have drifted between the sensational and ordinary over the first four rounds. They’ll have to be consistently good over the next five. In the last three years they have lost just two matches on their return from the Australasian tour. That is a formidable record but will count for nothing if they bomb Down Under.
One wouldn’t bank against the Bulls winning the tournament if they secured a top place finish and hosted a final. That has to be their goal and one that will only be realised if they bag a good points haul on tour.
By Ryan Vrede