Brenden Nel - SuperSport
Johannesburg - The Bulls will start their preparations for Friday night’s Vodacom Super Rugby match against the Melbourne Rebels with the firm knowledge that they blew their last remaining chance to make the playoffs.
According to the supersport.com website, but then again, in a season where they failed to win one away game in their horrific camouflage gear, even if they had sneaked into the back door of the competition, the odds would have been against them making the trip to win away from home.
All in all it has been an utterly disappointing season for Frans Ludeke and his troops, as they stubbornly soldiered on despite glaring inefficiencies, and continued on the same path that had not worked for them all season.
In their 16-0 loss to the DHL Stormers on Saturday, Ludeke was still upbeat afterwards, saying the team were on the right track in the second half and weren’t clinical enough.
But that has been the mantra in every single game the team has lost.
It is understandable for a coach to be positive in the face of defeat, but just days before the Stormers game Ludeke was confident the same loose trio that had not featured all season in Super Rugby would suddenly make a difference.
On the day they were anonymous in the face of Schalk Burger and Nizaam Carr’s performances and while the scrum creaked, the Bulls star-studded backline were left with little quality ball as their pack were bullied up front.
There is no doubt this team is a different monster at Loftus Versfeld, their unbeaten record this season proves that, but to be successful in Super Rugby you need to pick up points away from home. A four loss tour and defeat in every local derby away from home is a killer stat for the Bulls this season.
While their marketing department may be a success, only two victories in three years while playing in pink and camouflage may be a strange stat for their away kit, but it will certainly be one that Bulls fans won’t enjoy.
In their defence, the season would always be tough after they lost the likes of Arno Botha, Pierre Spies and Deon Stegmann to injury. And while the Bulls may blame their own accuracy on attack for their problems, in almost every single game they were beaten, they were beaten on the ground at the breakdown.
“We started well but at the end of the day it is the scoreboard that talks. It was a game of two halves for us, we thought we may have gotten a few points in the second half and that would have given us a say. Still, well done to the Stormers, their defence was massive. It is a pity we lost balls at the breakdown at critical times, especially in that second half,” Ludeke said after the game.
“Every time that this team was under pressure they came well, if I think of the games against the Crusaders, against the Blues and at home we’ve done very well. But if you look back at the games there is always one or two games that if you could have won them, it could have been a different story.
“Consistency is what cost us this season. We weren’t consistent every weekend this season and the games we should have won, we lost.
“But there are positives, we are excited about the players that are coming through,.”
However a valid question will be why the Bulls kept on resolutely with a loose trio that played without a recognised fetcher. Jono Ross tried valiantly but he is not a fetcher, and was being played out of position.
The ever complex backing of Callie Visagie above the impressive Bongi Mbonambi is another questionable decision as while Visagie adds something extra in the scrums, it certainly didn’t help the Bulls on Saturday and Visagie makes little impact elsewhere on the field.
It will be interesting to see if the Bulls actually deviate from their ultra conservative approach and allow some changes for the last game given that they are out of the competition now.
The impressive youth of William Small-Smith, SA under-20 star Jesse Kriel and Mbonambi can inject some enthusiasm into the Bulls while backing the likes of Handre Pollard to continue can only be a good thing.
Of course, another interesting argument would be the impact the 30-plus departures from Loftus Versfeld in the last few years has had on the union, and while the lure of the overseas currencies played a major part, their current management style towards players has also played its massive part.
Stegmann is likely to return this week to the side of the scrum, and that in itself will be a good thing. But in a competition as unforgiving as Super Rugby, the Bulls regression was very much their own doing.