Vodacom Super Rugby
Bulls go back to square one
Morné Steyn (Gallo Images)
Cape Town – What is it about the Bulls and major spring-cleaning?
It seemed almost with glee on Tuesday that they issued a media release a little quirkily headed: 'Vodacom Bulls say thank you'
At first glance, it seemed it might be a message to the Loftus faithful, acknowledging their contribution to the franchise’s healthy ascent in 2013 to a home Super Rugby semi-final
– albeit an agonisingly failed quest
against the Brumbies -- and deserved supremacy a little earlier in the South African conference.
But instead the statement was effectively a farewell notice to an array of mostly stalwart players – eight in total
"The contracts of (Juandré Kruger, Zane Kirchner, Dewald Potgieter, Jacques Potgieter, Jano Vermaak, Chiliboy Ralepelle, Morné Steyn and Wynand Olivier) have expired and the Blue Bulls Company and Vodacom Bulls management would like to thank them for their services."
It sounded just a little like a retrenchment letter
... but jokes aside, many Bulls fans would, I am certain, have got an alarming feeling of déjà vu.
For while each individual’s departure had already been signalled publicly, bundling their names together somehow made it appear so much more ominously like the previous, mass fleeing of the coop in 2011 when, hot on the heels of other favourites like Gurthro Steenkamp and Gary Botha, blue-chip internationals Victor Matfield, Bakkies Botha, Danie Rossouw and Fourie du Preez (you could add in Pedrie Wannenburg and one or two others) all moved on from the Loftus playing fold.
The latest list of outbound stars may be, in most cases, not quite as weighty in gravitas: keep in mind that Messrs Matfield, Du Preez and company counted among the very best on the planet in their specific positions at the time.
But the eight, all of them Test players, still account for a beefy combined total of 609 Super Rugby caps (all of Steyn, Olivier and Vermaak have gone past three figures).
Mostly influential elements of the post-2011 'rebuild', which commendably and against some expectations saw the Bulls qualify for the finals series in both 2012 and this year, these men now bid farewell to Pretoria for the time being as well: you could say that the consolidation drive suddenly requires ... well, some fresh consolidation of its own.
It is, once again, a lot of good names to unload in one go, and there is absolutely no guarantee that the Bulls will be able to absorb this blow as impressively as they did the 2011 exodus.
Let’s face it, a character like Steyn has been an integral part of the Loftus furniture since around 2005 and holder of all sorts of records in points accumulation, even if he is no Dan Carter for completeness as a No 10.
A slightly easier void to fill, of course, concerns someone like blond midfielder Olivier, just turned 30 and probably having peaked in top-flight rugby; the future of the Bulls No 12 jersey so clearly lies for the foreseeable future in the exciting figure of Jan Serfontein.
Nevertheless, additionally stripped of various still-resident Boks for the Rugby Championship, the Bulls now look to have a notably wet-behind-the-ears crew for the 2013 Currie Cup (even given that the once untouchable old domestic competition is swiftly downgrading to a mere development device anyway for Super Rugby) and are likely to experience at least some teething difficulties as they negotiate 2014 hostilities in the latter.
What the Bulls have on their side, as they work to close the latest cracks, is a settled and committed coaching team, consistently sound structures at U19 and U21 level, and a remarkable ability among their scouts to usually quickly recruit the very cream of every year’s Craven Week schoolboy players.
They are also no strangers to signing up headline names from other franchises: it was probably no coincidence – and a swift placatory gesture to their nervous supporters – that soon after the 'departures' press statement came another trumpeting the arrival for next year’s Super Rugby of slippery Cheetahs scrumhalf Piet van Zyl
The thought of the attack-minded Van Zyl at No 9, someone like the undoubtedly gifted ex-Baby Bok Handré Pollard immediately outside him (filling Steyn’s considerable boots), and then Messrs Serfontein and JJ Engelbrecht in the centre berths hints fairly strongly at a fascinating new commitment to enterprise at Loftus.
That may well be viewed as a necessary, calculated way to go, given the problems the Bulls have encountered at the set-pieces – once areas of such gung-ho strength for them – of late.
Even on that score, there are fledgling signs that the situation may not be too parlous in 2014 and beyond: rocked by first the Matfield retirement and then Kruger’s untimely surrender of the No 5 lock’s shirt ahead of the knockout phase this year, perhaps it was significant that 22-year-old Grant Hattingh had one of his most visible games yet for the Bulls in the nail-biting semi last weekend.
Similarly, the wonky front row seemed to find a decent second wind when Morné Mellett, 23, came off the bench to serve the loose-head side of the scrum very determinedly.
And don’t misinterpret my mild anxiety over the newest haemorrhaging of trusty personnel: times may well prove exciting, unusually free-spirited and containing dramatic seeds of youthful renewal in Bulls country over the next couple of years.
But less likely, I believe, will be a strong enough assault to be able to emulate the prior Super Rugby title conquests of 2007, 2009 and 2010.
Once again, they have probably shed too many experienced customers in one sweep of the brush to be in a position to go all the way to the grand prize for a fourth time, at least in the short- to medium-term.
Depth could be a problem ...*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing