Bulls still a work in progress

RYAN VREDE writes that the Bulls’ performance against the Blues exposed areas tactical, technical and mental that need addressing.

The Bulls started the tournament superbly with a home win against the Sharks and the emphatic victory over the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein. They were widely expected to beat the Blues, who were uninspiring in the first fortnight of the tournament, at Loftus on Saturday, but were convincingly beaten.

The press they received for their victories ranged from grudging applause to perspective-lacking cheerleading, the latter mostly from the northern media, who took it personally that the Bulls were not being spoken of as potential champions in light of the mass departure of mostly senior players. There was very little measured analysis and still no absolute judgement can be made on the Pretoria franchise.

However, the defeat suggested this talented Bulls side still has to undergo much refinement. Gareth Anscombe’s early try and goal-kicking excellence rocked the Bulls, who were never allowed to settle into their pattern. I praised the Blues for their composure, discipline and accuracy on defence, but the Bulls lacked a telling rebuttal and the degree of their impotence should concern their coaching staff and supporters.

Undoubtedly their cause was further undermined by Morné Steyn’s poor goal-kicking, although to be overly critical of a player who has won so many games with his boot would be grossly unfair.

They progressively shifted from a territory-based approach to an ugly run-kick hybrid and finally reverted to all-out ball-in-hand attack as their desperation climaxed. There was none of the composure, tactical intelligence and unrelenting drive that had been a hallmark of Bulls sides in their prime in recent years.

They also lacked decisive leadership, the kind Fourie du Preez and Victor Matfield were renowned for. Pierre Spies is in the infancy of his tenure as captain and Saturday was an important part of his education. He will improve.

Coach Frans Ludeke said to me in an interview last week that they have divided their season into different phases. Phase one, he explained, was the three matches before their bye this weekend. I’m certain that he would have ticked most of the boxes in terms of his expectations in that phase, but he will be acutely aware of the pressing need to refine areas of their attacking play that were exposed as flawed under the pressure they experienced against the Blues.

With a tough series of games ahead – the Reds and Crusaders at home with a trip to the Stormers sandwiched in between – any vulnerabilities will be tested and exposed if not addressed and rectified.

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