RYAN VREDE writes the changes the Bulls have made for their match against the Reds will give them a robustness they’ve lacked, but the omission of Fourie du Preez is perplexing.
Let’s begin with the Du Preez issue. Francois Hougaard was promised more game time at scrumhalf at the beginning of the season. Playing him against the Reds was planned well in advance and coach Frans Ludeke is not a man to backtrack on a promise.
However, when planning his rotation he would not have foreseen his side being in the dire situation they now are. In light of this he should have reassessed his commitment to Hougaard. Du Preez, even below his optimal potency, is an invaluable player to have on the field in at a critical match like this.
I would usually make the same argument for Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha, both of whom were retained. But their form doesn’t warrant the reward of a run-on start, and their vast experience shouldn’t be justification for selection when their mediocrity is bordering on chronic. In this regard, Matfield continues to benefit from being the captain as well as the absence of a ready-made replacement. Botha, however, should be watching Danie Rossouw from the wood.
Pierre Spies and Wynand Olivier have escaped criticism here, but they too are surviving on reputation alone.
Ludeke must assert his authority in a way he has yet to do at any stage of his four-year reign. In doing so he will send a message to his senior Springboks that the mediocrity that has been in evidence won’t be tolerated, even in their final season with the franchise. In fact, it shouldn’t be so prevalent because it is their last.
That issue aside, Hougaard offered the Bulls a dynamic option in the wide channels and should have been retained there. Certainly he’ll pose a greater threat than Du Preez does sniping around the ruck fringes because of his superior physicality. He punches above his weight in the collisions on attack and defence, the former boding well in terms of getting across the gainline (a deficiency of the Bulls) and repelling the opposition there.
But, in addition to his tactical intelligence, leadership and experience, Du Preez relieves pressure on his embattled flyhalf, Morne Steyn, in a way Hougaard is yet to be able to. It wouldn’t surprise me to see Steyn plummet to a new low in Du Preez’s absence.
Elsewhere I believe the changes will galvanise the side. Chiliboy Ralepelle will, at this stage, offer the Bulls a superior ball carrying option to Gary Botha, who looks stale and in need of rest. Derick Kuün’s irrepressible spirit isn’t matched by his technical ability, but he will inject energy and determination on defence, particularly at the breakdown, and is a rabid force on attack. I have yet to be convinced of Stephan Dippenaar’s aptitude for Super Rugby, but Jaco Pretorius’ contribution has been so ordinary that Dippenaar has only to threaten a linebreak to make me a believer.
I don’t expect any of these players to retain their places, even if they are the catalysts for what would be an upset victory in Brisbane. The Bulls have a definite pecking order and Ludeke is unlikely to veer from the script. But the changes he has made, even though part of a rotational policy (their words), should ensure an improvement on the lame fare they’ve offered to date.
The inclusion of Du Preez and Rossouw would further have amplified that threat.