RYAN VREDE writes the Bulls will need a level of tactical variation they have yet to exhibit if they hope to beat the Sharks.
In their title winning campaigns of 2007, 2009 and 2010 the Bulls were among the tournament’s best in terms of shifting between different approaches. Criticism of them being one-dimensional was flawed.
They had evolved their game to the point where they were adept at pummelling their opponents into submission through a forward-orientated style, probing for field position then backing their defence to pressure them into errors they would then profit from, or exposing the defensive frailties of certain opponents in the wide channels with an expansive game.
This is no longer the case. They have regressed tactically. Certainly their weapon of choice in 2011 has been the boots of halfback pair, Morné Steyn and Fourie du Preez. Only the Reds’ halfback combination of Quade Cooper and Will Genia has kicked more. The marked difference, however, has been in the effectiveness of those kicks, which have rarely been off point.
Furthermore, the Reds have shown their capacity to transition between styles in a way the Bulls haven’t, easing the burden on their duo and providing the team with a tactical out if needed.
While their punts have hardly been diabolical, Steyn and Du Preez haven’t been nearly as consistently good as they were at their prime in 2009. You only need to get it slightly wrong for a well-intentioned kick – be that an up-and-under or a probe for field position – to become a broken field attacking opportunity that compromises your defence. The Bulls have been unlocked in this manner on numerous occasions throughout this campaign.
Head coach Frans Ludeke maintains that the game plan itself is not flawed, just the execution thereof. However, he and his coaching staff have struggled to equip their charges with an alternative in the manner they did so successfully in the aforementioned seasons.
It must be noted that Ludeke and co haven’t been helped by their primary strike runners’ failure to assert any dominance at the tackle point against elite opposition. Slow ruck recycles undermine even the best intentions, and if the coaching staff have indeed made concerted efforts to prepare the side to strike with a bludgeon and a rapier with equal effectiveness, they need look no further than this deficiency as the root cause of their struggles.
There have been improvements against the Chiefs and Rebels, but neither if those sides tested their adaptability in the way the Sharks will. The Durbanites have the defensive punch to ensure that Steyn and Du Preez will have to execute kicks with limited space and time, as well as the players to exploit any broken field situations that may arise from miscued kicks.
How the Bulls respond tactically if Plan A bombs will be decisive to the outcome. They haven’t done so successfully when asked to in this season. Nothing suggests they will at King’s Park.