Bulls coach Frans Ludeke says his expectations of a new-look Bulls side surpassed those of some pessimists but cautioned that they were very much a work in progress.
The Bulls lost a string of players to injuries and retirements last year, while a number opted to continue their careers abroad. In the sextet of Victor Matfield, Fourie du Preez, Bakkies Botha, Danie Rossouw, Gurthro Steenkamp and Gary Botha they lost 581 Super Rugby caps as well as an appreciable number of Test caps.
That shearing of experience was expected to undermine their cause, despite the franchise recruiting relatively well and elevating a clutch of talented youngsters from their junior structures. However, through an excellent start which has included convincing victories over the Sharks and Cheetahs, they have thus far defied widely-held expectations for a mediocre season.
Ludeke was cool in his appraisal of his charges, but said he is aware of the belief that the rebuilding would come at a cost and totally disagrees with it. ‘We will never say we expected to start as well as we have. We respect the game and our opponents too much for that. But I will say that we put a lot of hard work in in the pre-season and that work has showed in the opening two games. We didn’t know for sure how it would go but we had a lot of faith in this group,’ Ludeke told keo.co.za.
‘We lost a lot of experienced players and people forget that we have quite a few senior players remaining. A guy like Flip van der Merwe, for example, played a lot of rugby while Bakkies Botha was here. Francois Hougaard has played regularly for the last two years, albeit not at scrumhalf. There are others, like Juandré Kruger who has experience gained from playing in the Premiership. Chiliboy Ralepelle is a Test player even though this is his first season as the starting hooker. So we aren’t a completely new-look side. That has shown in the way the guys have gone about their business in the first two games. The other young players have responded brilliantly to their challenges at this stage.
‘That said we know how results in this tournament can swing. So we are happy with the start but know that there are many, many matches still to play. Consistency is key. Nobody will remember what happened at the start of the season if we don’t keep winning and playing well.’
The Bulls are expected to continue their winning streak this weekend when they host the Blues, who have played poorly and are winless. They have been hammered in their last three visits to Loftus and nothing suggests they will make the exponential improvements they need to record an unlikely result.
However, Ludeke said he still holds the Auckland side in high regard. ‘They could easily have been on the other end of the result against the Crusaders and there were moments in their match against the Chiefs last week that if they had finished better they would have been in with a shout,’ he said.
‘We know it takes one good performance to turn around a season and the Blues will be determined to make that match against us. What has happened before counts for nothing.’
The Blues have been tactically naive in their defeats, often running the ball from deep in their territory, then surrendering possession when carriers are isolated or through handling errors. Ludeke doesn’t expect them to temper their approach but noted their ability to be direct if they choose to.
‘They have some good broken-field runners and we’ll have to be accurate in our kicking to ensure that we don’t feed them. But they also have some big forwards and they’ve shown in the past that they can play through many phases with them if they want to. They are a very balanced side and it will require us to be on top of all areas of our game to beat them.’