Brenden Nel - SuperSport
Johannesburg - Don’t expect the Vodacom Bulls to be pressing any panic buttons this week, even though they were unable to score a single point against the Crusaders this past weekend in one of their worst performances in Super Rugby this millennium.
The defending champions may be in crisis mode at the moment, but they certainly won’t be letting it on to anyone outside the camp. There is no doubt that they would also have been shell-shocked by their own performance in Timaru this weekend, but the harsh reality is that bar one or two cases, there are little alternatives for them to try out.
To change course midstream would be suicide, and the Bulls will continue to bank on the same Springbok stars that have brought them success in the past few seasons. The big question though will be how to get certain players back into form.
There is no question that while they may be core players in the Springbok squad, the form of players like Wynand Olivier, Pierre Spies, Fourie du Preez, captain Victor Matfield, Morne Steyn and Bakkies Botha is a massive concern at the moment.
While young players like Werner Kruger, Dean Greyling, Dewald Potgieter, Deon Stegmann and Flip van der Merwe play their hearts out every week, there has been little support from the senior players in the squad.
Handling is an issue, composure – normally a Bulls trademark – is also missing and to put this just down to a simple few bad weeks would be to understate the problem at the moment. While the Bulls denied there was a problem when they lost two on the trot at home, if the Crusaders result doesn’t jolt them, then nothing will.
You can understand Frans Ludeke’s reluctance to change mid-stream. Like Allister Coetzee with Bryan Habana, the coach believes in his players, having seen them take the game to new heights, but the reality of the situation has to sink in at some point.
The Bulls have been written off before, and every time they have stood up and shown their critics that they are wrong in every way. But this time, in their biggest challenge in years, it will come down to the senior players to show the leadership skills they have, and pick up the tour and move forward.
Their match against the high-flying Reds is no redemption. After five wins on the trot the Reds have the momentum, and despite a hectic travel schedule back from South Africa, they must be red hot favourites at Suncorp Stadium – a place where the Bulls have never won in their history.
It must be remembered too that the Bulls came to Brisbane in a much more confident mood last year on their way to the title, lost 19-12 and looked poor against a Quade Cooper-inspired home side. Ludeke at least is admitting it was not good enough.
“We've learnt through previous years that we cannot give any excuses for our performance. We aren't happy and we know that it was not good enough. But we are looking forward to our next game against the Reds,” an optimistic Ludeke said from Surfer’s Paradise on the Gold coast.
“We made too many mistakes. We had a straight talk after the game and we know that we have a standard to keep up. It is still early days to go for the option of making changes.”
“I believe in the players I have and we still believe in each other so the win will come. A tour is never easy, that's the way the game goes. We must keep our heads up”
The Bulls know the mammoth task facing them now – not only against the Reds but against the wave of criticism they have received from South Africa.
Many back home are already saying they’ve past their sell-by date and that taking these stars to the World Cup would be suicide.
There is only one way to answer these critics – on the field.
Form is a merciless master, but somehow these Bulls need to find it, and find it fast.