Bullies not bossing the playground

RYAN VREDE writes the Bulls’ consistent failure to impose themselves at the collisions is at the root of their mediocrity.

Last week week I argued that the Bulls’ struggles in their first three matches stemmed from their inability to repel their opponents at the gain line. On average their opponents in those matches won that contest 80% of the time. I predicted they would improve against the Stormers. Instead, they regressed badly.

The importance of solid gain line defence cannot be overstated. Contesting the ball at the breakdown legally is near impossible if you’re constantly having to get back onside before doing so. As a result the attacking team can dictate the speed and direction of their attack, and often do so against a depleted defensive line.

The Bulls’ failure to halt the Stormers’ determined carriers can be directly linked to the comfortable margin of victory. The build up to Peter Grant’s second penalty featured a Jaque Fourie linebreak and subsequent pick and drives that forced the Bulls to contest the ball illegally. Later Grant carried across the line despite the attention of two defenders. Again the Bulls infringed and the Stormers’ flyhalf duly punished them. In the 53rd minute Fourie again punched up, and more ill-discipline at ruck time cost the hosts three more points.

It wasn’t surprising that their most obvious deficiency would be terminal to their cause. The score that sealed the match was birthed from Juan de Jongh, hardly a behemoth by current standards, ripping the ball in a tackle and setting the move in motion that culminated in Bryan Habana’s try.

Those defensive shortcomings cost the Bulls 14 points, and that total could have been greater had Grant sunk other penalties from ruck infringements. Ominously, their next five opponents – the Lions (home), Hurricanes, Crusaders, Reds and Force (all away) – have all thrived when they’ve been allowed to generate attacking momentum by dominating the tackle fight. Significant improvements are needed, and the Bulls’ senior Springboks have to set the standard.

But their troubles run deeper than that, and extend to their attacking game. At the heart of this is the inability of their primary strike runners to impose themselves physically in contact. For the Bulls, more than any team in the tournament, winning the tackle fight is fundamental to their success.

Pierre Spies was largely anonymous in a match where his team desperately needed him to shine. It is criminal that a player with a physical constitution and the athleticism and speed unmatched by any No. 8 in the world doesn’t contribute significantly in a contest of this magnitude. His only telling run came in the 60th minute, where he advanced well beyond the gain line. Bulls’ coaches must be held partly accountable for not developing strategies which create situations that offer Spies more time and space to exploit.

Bakkies Botha was comprehensively outplayed by Super Rugby rookie Rynhardt Elstadt, the enforcer possessing the attacking threat of a poodle. Botha has struggled for form for some time, but his declining prowess was in full evidence at Loftus. Gurthrö Steenkamp, Dewald Potgieter and Wynand Olivier, all failed to replicate the collision dominance that has been so crucial to the Bulls’ success in recent years.

Their only try of the match was a homecoming gift from Habana, and, as has been the case for all but 40 minutes against the Lions, they never seriously tested their opponents’ defence for sustained periods. With the quality they have at their disposal, teams shouldn’t be winning at Loftus as comfortably as the Highlanders and Stormers did.

They’ll believe they have the capacity to rebound. On the evidence of what I’ve seen I believe they’re a team in decline.

Follow Ryan on Twitter

Follow SA Rugby on Twitter