The Bulls are laying some of the ghosts of 2008 to rest but an accurate judgement of them can only be made after their Australasian tour.
The Bulls were diabolical in their title defence last year, finishing 10th and losing seven of their 13 matches. Their regression was dramatic. In 2007 they purred like a fine-tuned muscle car, demolishing most opponents with their unique brand of brutality and panache (they finished the league phase as the tournament’s second highest try scorers). However, the team stuttered along in 2008, displaying none of the elements which had made them so successful a year earlier.
There were widespread calls for coach Frans Ludeke to be fired. He arrived at the franchise with a poor Super Rugby record and his inability to ensure continuity in success despite the structures already being in place and inheriting a squad laden with World Cup winning Springboks, seemed to confirm that Super Rugby was a step too high for him.
However, the team appears to be displaying many of the characteristics which made the 2007 group so successful, and having gone unbeaten in five, they are building a strong case to be considered genuine title contenders.
The victory over the Hurricanes in Wellington on Friday is perhaps testament to how much the Bulls have improved. They were massacred 50-22 by the Canes at Loftus in 2008. However, with a match 22 featuring 17 of the players who were humiliated in Pretoria, they comprehensively outsmarted the Canes on their home track, despite being reduced to 14 men for the majority of the match.
That defeat at Loftus prompted a crisis meeting where players and the coaching staff aired their concerns and frustrations. By all accounts it was a cathartic process which benefited the squad tremendously. The Bulls have won nine matches on the bounce since then, and will fancy their chances of improving that record against the Highlanders in Dunedin this weekend.
‘Last year was a down year — we had a lot of new players and had to regroup. They (the 2007 team) had members who won the World Cup, they won the Super 14, they won four Currie Cups. We had to get new goals and things are back on track,’ Ludeke told the media after the Canes victory. ‘We wanted this badly, to build on the wins at home, and to prove we can win away.’
However, Ludeke and his team will be acutely aware that one tour victory doesn’t constitute a successful tour. Their remaining four matches (against the Highlanders, Crusaders, Waratahs and Brumbies) will be the true measure of this side.
The 2007 touring group won three of their five matches on the road, and that played a major role in them securing a home semi-final. A European exodus has diluted the strength of the Australasian sides they will face in their remaining matches and there is no reason why the Bulls cannot improve that record, particularly with Springboks Bryan Habana and Victor Matfield set to return from injury shortly.
They’ve lost just two matches in three years when they’ve returned from tour. If they replicate their tour success of 2007 and continue their dominance upon their return, a top place finish is a distinct possibility.
If they get themselves into that situation it’s theirs to lose.
By Ryan Vrede