RYAN VREDE writes that the Bulls have been anything but impressive in their opening matches but suspects that those ugly wins precede a return to type.
In reflection perhaps I’ve been harsh when assessing the Bulls to date. Certainly for the first half against the Lions they were outstanding. However, for 105 minutes thereafter, including the first 65 against the Cheetahs on Friday that featured uncharacteristic tactical naivety of the highest order, they have, by their standards, been mediocre.
But there are mitigating factors, ones I didn’t show enough appreciation for initially.
Their victories have come away from home, which is no small feat when you consider that South African derbies are rarely easy matches. The Lions showed against the Stormers on Saturday evening that they are a vastly improved team from the one that masqueraded as a Super Rugby franchise in 2010. Their narrow defeat against the Bulls at Ellis Park was no fluke. That Bulls victory, initiated by the first-half excellence and attained through a desperate defensive effort in the second, was crucial to their confidence.
The Cheetahs were always going to be an easier proposition but the Bulls undoubtedly made their task more arduous by exhibiting a horrible hybrid approach – kicking poorly and attacking expansively without a platform to do so.
However, their capacity to rebound away from the comfort of Loftus must be applauded. Fifteen points away from home is a significant deficit, arguably one try conceded away from being out of the contest, and speaks of their character and experience. Few sides in the competition could have managed that and being able to grind out victories despite a flawed performance is a trait shared by champion teams.
Fourie du Preez was patently off the pace until it became clear that a general was needed to direct their assault, which until that point had featured plenty of brawn but not enough brains. He certainly isn’t match-fit yet, but played on memory, displaying the composure and sharp decision-making under pressure that comes from having been in similar situations before. The Bulls’ performances will improve in direct proportion to his match conditioning.
They will miss Du Preez (he leaves to join Suntory at the end of the season) more than they will the retiring Victor Matfield. The Springbok lock remains an important leader, but his powers outside his lineout prowess are waning. Du Preez will be just 29 years old when he begins his Japanese adventure, still be a couple of years away from the age-induced slide into the realm of the ordinary that Matfield is now experiencing.
There are secondary factors that will contribute to the Bulls’ form graph curving upwards. Pierre Spies’ running power will be harnessed better, Dewald Potgieter will display the dynamism that has marked him as a key man for the Bulls, Wynand Olivier will profit more greatly from the increased potency of his heavies and Bjorn Basson is yet to find his stride. Collectively there will be more precision and the tactical naivety they’ve displayed to date will slowly give way to the intelligent and precise approach we’ve become accustomed to.
A bye just before two massive games at Loftus (against the Stormers and Lions) is a godsend thereafter one will be able to more accurately assess where the Bulls stand in their bid to win their third successive title.
At present they are certainly not looking formidable, but with two flawed wins and a run of three home matches they are well placed to stir from their slumber.