Trouble with transition

RYAN VREDE writes that the Bulls have to exhibit more tactical flexibility and game intelligence if they are to defend their Super Rugby title.

Last week I wrote that the Bulls looked ominous. I based that assertion on the fact that they had ground out two away wins in derby matches despite deeply flawed performances. I predicted that those mediocre showings would prompt reanalysis of their ‘systems’ (a word readily used by their players and coaches) and that they would be astute enough in that analysis and accurate in their execution going forward, to make a statement of intent.

Instead what we got on Saturday evening was a replication of the errors that were a marked feature of their first fortnight. The players must take responsibility for their ability to execute the attacking and defensive game plans.

Speaking at half time, head coach Frans Ludeke identified the defensive deficiencies accurately – a weak tackle fight and too little numbers at the breakdown was allowing the Highlanders to dictate the tempo and of flow of play. They looked vulnerable every time the Highlanders swung the ball wide, as they did when the Lions and Cheetahs tested them in this manner. Their cause was undermined by the fact that they were consistently falling off tackles, with senior Springboks among those who were poor in this facet of play.

It is a poor effort to concede 35 points at home – including two tries gifted to Kade Poki through diabolical defence – against a side as limited as the Highlanders. The usually stingy Bulls have now conceded 10 tries against three of the weaker teams in the tournament (the Highlanders will point to their three from three record but they’ll be no more than mid-table competitors by the close of the season). Only the rookie Rebels have a worse defensive record (13).

However, their biggest concern has to be their uncharacteristic impotence on attack. Outside of their excellent first half against the Lions they have struggled to impose themselves in the manner they’ve become renowned for. The Highlanders match was the nadir in this regard. They were bullied at the collisions and at ruck time, robbing them of the platform they needed to test the Highlanders defensively.

On Saturday the match situation demanded tactical flexibility. An attempt was made, but it was a weak and unsuccessful one.

Good tactical kicks lost their impact because of a lethargic chase, allowing the Highlanders the opportunity to counter from broken field. Their rolling maul crept rather than rumbled across the turf and attempts at a multi-phase game were thwarted by a combination of their poor ball protection and referee Stuart Dickinson’s generosity to the defending team at the breakdown.

The Bulls wouldn’t have won three Super Rugby titles in four years if they didn’t have the capacity to transition between game plans when needed. The problem is that they’ve failed to exhibit that capacity to date, but at this point they will draw solace from the fact that poor execution and not the inability to shift, is at the root of their struggles.

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To read the Bulls vs Highlanders match report click here