Bulls must make a physical statement

RYAN VREDE writes the Bulls have to address their failings at the collisions as a matter of urgency.

There are a few lessons the Bulls can take from Tuks’ impressive performance in beating Maties in the Varsity Cup last night, not least of all the students’ utter determination to go forward in every contact situation. It is of course a trait instilled in the defending champions by the man who was calling the shots for Tuks on Monday evening, Heyneke Meyer.

Under Meyer the Bulls were defined by their brutality at the collisions, and while it would be grossly unfair to suggest they have been diabolical in this facet of play after Meyer’s departure in 2007 (he has subsequently returned as the director of rugby), they’ve certainly not possessed the same potency.

With the ball in play for longer than it was prior to the introduction of the law interpretations that favour the attacking team, good defence – with tackle point dominance and a strong breakdown contest the key features – has been the cornerstone on which victories have been built.

The Bulls, in their first two matches, struggled to impose themselves in this regard, and were fortunate to register victories. In their third the Highlanders exposed their shortcomings at the collisions and were allowed to employ a high-tempo, expansive approach that reaped rewards.

The Bulls were forced to make an astonishing 203 tackles, missing 19. Their inability to dominate the contact situations and as a result pose little threat at ruck time was the root cause for the relentless defensive pressure they were under. By falling off hits or being bossed in the tackle (the Lions made 12 linebreaks, 16 offloads and got over the advantage line 78% of the time) the Bulls were never able to dictate the attacking tempo of their opponents and often found themselves fronting with a depleted defensive line. It is a credit to their character that they took four points from Ellis Park.

They missed just seven of 115 tackles against the Cheetahs, but allowed 11 linebreaks and lost 80% of the tackle fights. Their defensive nadir came against the Landers, missing 22 of 172 tackles, conceding 16 linebreaks, 26 offloads and allowing the Kiwis to carry the ball over the gain line 84% of the time. Kade Poki’s second-half tries featured schoolboy-like defence not befitting a team laden with Springboks.

This is not an indictment on defence coach John McFarland, who I believe is among the finest in his job on the planet. The system isn’t flawed – it has won them three Super Rugby titles – but those within the system have been. This needs to be remedied.

The Stormers have hardly kicked out of second gear to date, but they’ve exhibited their capacity to shred teams to ribbons in the 2010 competition if allowed to establish an attacking platform. They have in their ranks forwards who, if they spring from their lethargy, can be constant threats at the gain line, and a back division that are equipped to capitalise. The Stormers will need no extra motivation than the promise of downing the old enemy on their home patch. They’ll pose a formidable physical threat.

The Bulls will want to make a statement in contact on Saturday. It will aim to dispel the burgeoning notion that they are beatable when bullied.

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