RYAN VREDE wonders if a quarter-final finish should be deemed a successful season for the Bulls?
Albeit unlikely, the possibility still exists that the three-time champions will not make the play-offs if other results don’t favour them and/or they lose to the Lions. That would constitute an abject failure.
The Bulls have never asked for time to rebuild after a mass exodus of players, many of them vastly experienced. Indeed they lost a combined total of 581 Super Rugby caps and hundreds more Test caps with the departure or retirement of Victor Matfield, Fourie du Preez, Danie Rossouw, Gurthro Steenkamp, Bakkies Botha and Gary Botha.
In light of this expectations should have been measured, but not diluted significantly. The strength of their first-choice players and the quality in depth meant that finishing in the top six was expected, not hoped for.
Furthermore, injuries to key players haven’t affected them in the manner it has other elite sides. Certainly not in the way the Stormers’ cause has been undermined by the absence of world-class players like Schalk Burger, Andries Bekker and Duane Vermeulen, or talented youngsters like Rynhardt Elstadt, Nizaam Carr, Nick Koster and Eben Etzebeth. The Cape side could have called for tempered expectations and been justified in doing so. Instead they maintained that were pushing on towards their first goal of topping the South African conference. That they achieved this is a testament to the resolve and quality of the available players, good coaching and solid playing structures.
Just the embattled Lions stand in the Bulls’ path to a play-off spot. The Bulls will tell you that anything can happen on the day, but they have no base for such a claim. The Lions are the weakest side in the tournament, reflected in the record and log position. Defeat against them would be one of the worst in the Bulls’ recent history. It won’t happen, though.
They are most likely to then have to travel to Christchurch for a quarter-final against the Crusaders. This is where the experience lost will be most sorely missed. An exit at that stage, against that opponent, cannot be seen as a underachievement. This is not to say the Bulls have no chance of winning there, just that the Crusaders are a better all-round side and more experienced. History also reflects a poor record on the road against Todd Blackadder’s men. In addition, the Bulls’ performances against the tournament’s elite side’s have been largely uninspiring.
You need to pass a couple of those stern examinations to be in the mix to top your conference or host a play-off. They will reflect on key moments that could have put a different complexion on their campaign. They lost to the Blues at Loftus, a result that will be lamented as decisive to the longevity of their run. Then, after two wins to start their tour, they lost three on the bounce, one at home to the Stormers. Saturday’s defeat to the Sharks was yet another match in which they failed to rouse themselves to a level of performance the magnitude of the occasion demanded.
This will define their season – good but not good enough when it mattered. This cannot be offered as an excuse in 2013.