Currie Cup

There’s hope again at Loftus

2015-08-23 13:50
Jambo Ulengo (Gallo Images)
Cape Town - They have suffered wave upon wave of defections to more lucrative overseas climes, and for the last couple of years under Frans Ludeke’s tenure their game at both Super Rugby and Currie Cup level got stuck in a near-laughable time warp.

You could almost have said the Bulls had become a rugby equivalent of Liverpool, a once-mighty football club able to dine out strictly on glories past.

They remain the only South African side – and we should never lose sight of that – to have won the Super Rugby title, and three times between 2007 and 2010.

Two of those occasions were under Ludeke’s hand, and while he had the appropriate ammunition at his disposal in squad terms, the largely conservative, structures-driven brand of rugby they played was generally very successful.

But in more recent seasons, and with the Loftus trophy cabinet beginning to collect ominous volumes of dust (no Super Rugby silverware beyond 2010, no Currie Cup since 2009) the Bulls suffered greatly from the blinkered, too-stubborn belief of Ludeke and a fair tally of allies around him, both on-field and off, that increasingly outmoded methods could still bring fruits.

It seems not everyone in the vicinity of Pretoria bought into the formula, both on coaching staff and in the heart of the dressing room itself, and that probably goes further toward explaining why they regressed and the troops fielded lacked collective synergy and appetite.

In each of the 2014 and 2015 Super Rugby seasons, the Bulls, still largely under the dictates of an “old guard”, faded to ninth-placed overall places, with seven wins from 16 ordinary-season matches each time.

Those are unacceptable returns for such a big franchise, and in the all-domestic competition the state of affairs has been little better in recent times; didn’t we all tire horribly of those excessive hoof-and-hopes, and the tedious setting-up of forward pods for a laborious shunting-yard rumble?

But although the Currie Cup is now a much poorer cousin to Super Rugby - not in credibility, but at least in terms of much diminished use of best players on unions’ books - signals are flashing promisingly of late that a new generation of fleet-footed personnel are ready and willing to claw the Bulls back toward more ambitious and expressive terrain on all fronts.

The cherry on top of a trio of full-house early Blue Bulls wins (and 15 merry tries along the way) under new coach Nollis Marais was Saturday’s irresistible dismantling of champions Western Province by a 47-29 margin.

The scoreboard actually flattered the strangely complacent and ragged visitors, whose only two tries against the raging tide – five properly-constructed, sometimes quite dazzling ones -- came via an intercept and a charge-down; they were also beefed by the customary excellence of Demetri Catrakilis off the kicking tee.

Province would have awakened on Sunday morning not only to the good likelihood that a murderous, punitive Monday training session lies in wait, but also a mental hangover induced by concession of roughly a point a minute in the eventful last half-hour when the Bulls were running at them from all angles.

The irony is that back at Newlands they are also seeking some refreshment in game-plan, but after this showing – captain Nizaam Carr admitted the Bulls “took us to a place we just couldn’t handle” - a return to certain basics may be necessary first, including solving a mounting problem in their breakdown play.

Say what you like about WP and the Stormers sometimes finding Craig Joubert a bit of a nemesis when he has the whistle in their matches ... harsh officiating against them or not, this was an old-fashioned hiding in anyone’s language.

WP are certainly a better side than this mini-tornado they suffered through indicates, but right now the cup-holders have fallen six points off the pace as the Bulls and Lions lie jointly at the top of the overall table with maximum points in each case.

But it is great for the competition - and arguably the country, frankly - that the Bulls appear to be awakening at a rate of knots and perhaps set to become much more competitive participants again in the time-honoured north v south provincial rivalry.

It would be naive to believe all is suddenly hunky-dory again at Loftus, yet if the Blue Bulls can put together a rousing Currie Cup a little against the odds (we might have been entitled  believe their re-growth would take a tad longer?) it could also translate into an upward curve in Super Rugby next season.

There is a healthy emphasis on youth, both in the pack and backline, and there was an eye-opening level of infectious enthusiasm across the ranks on Saturday - only in the scrums did the Bulls continue to experience some angst.

Under the tutorship of Marais, the Bulls certainly haven’t abandoned all of their old, once formidable characteristics: they will still put up the odd box kick, and place a lot of emphasis on remorseless physicality in the tight-loose. In short, they won’t simply throw the ball about willy-nilly.

But there was also an air of liberation about the way Francois Hougaard and Tian Schoeman pulled the strings at nine and 10 respectively, with the latter not afraid to demonstrate a jink or side-step while still doing his various jobs with the boot authoritatively, and this approach brought out the best front-foot qualities in the outside backs.

Burger Odendaal and Jamba Ulengo were devastating at times too, but the biggest revelation was perhaps 20-year-old Warrick Gelant at fullback.

The Baby Boks star of a few months ago, who hails from Knysna but spiritedly reminded at the man-of-the-match presentation that his blood is very much “blou”, gave Province all sorts of problems with his bamboozling snipes near either touchline, and assistance in setting up others around him for raids on the try-line.

Be careful not to bank too hastily on routine, major success coming back to Pretoria just yet.

First things needed to change at Loftus ... and at the very least they are.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

Read more on:    blue bulls  |  currie cup  |  pretoria  |  rugby

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