Vodacom Super Rugby
Bulls set for brave new world?
Handre Pollard (Gallo Images)
Cape Town - To suggest that they’ll develop into the “new Crusaders” might be stretching things a bit, but if they are prepared to gradually moderate their conservative game-plan over the next couple of years, the Bulls may possess the sort of backline weaponry to really illuminate Super Rugby.
The three-time champion franchise understandably remains in a state of relative transition at present, playing as they are only their second season in the competition without a battery of long-serving figureheads like Victor Matfield
, Bakkies Botha
, Gurthro Steenkamp, Danie Rossouw and Fourie du Preez.
Nobody can be sure where they will end up in 2013, as they currently lie ninth overall with three wins and three reverses, whilst last year they did make the playoffs cut in fifth, although were quickly eliminated at the knockout phase.
They are still sticking pretty largely to the template that earned them Super Rugby titles in 2007, 2009 and 2010 - broadly physical, uncompromising forward play and a kick-and-chase relish - although the policy brings some risks because they no longer have quite the aura in lineout play and more especially the scrums that they used to boast.
But as long as Morne Steyn continues his tenure in the flyhalf spot, expect no dramatic alteration to their philosophy for the remainder of this campaign.
The largely formulaic - yet undoubtedly efficient as what he does - Steyn, however, bids farewell to Pretoria later this year as he seeks fresh pastures in the French Top 14 with Stade Francais.
And with it comes a fairly obvious window of opportunity, unless they decide to very stubbornly persist with the strategic status quo, for the Bulls to contemplate a fresh direction in attacking play.
They are beginning to assemble, after all, promising attributes in key backline positions to indicate the Bulls may just become leading exponents - perhaps within a year or two - in Super Rugby of backline verve, free-spiritedness and initiative.
Dreamland? Not when you contemplate what they may be offering by then in the string-pulling slots of scrumhalf, flyhalf and inside centre.
With a bit of luck Francois Hougaard
’s resurgence as a specialist scrumhalf (it seems his utility distraction as a wing will now cease to exist?), coupled with ever-mounting wisdom at his first positional calling in rugby, will have really borne fruit by 2014 and 2015 - keep in mind that the electric, tenacious little player still only turned 25 on Saturday.
But now we are all witnessing also the swift, rising maturity of such players on their books as Handre Pollard and Jan Serfontein
, who featured forcefully in the Baby Boks’ achievement last season in winning the IRB Junior World Championship on home soil.
Serfontein, even from limited opportunities thus far, has exhibited at Super Rugby level his welcome hot-stepping skills - plus suitable defensive assuredness - at No 12, whilst on Monday night Pollard rose to the occasion significantly in Tuks’ surprisingly one-sided 44-5 mauling of Maties in the Varsity Cup final at Danie Craven Stadium.
Particularly educative was that he wasn’t even operating in his favoured, more familiar pivot position; instead he looked notably at home at inside centre as Tuks stuck with the admirably consistent Willie du Plessis at No 10: the last-named player is just another in Blue Bulls territory with a seemingly bright future and apparent willingness not to simply lurk “in the pocket”.
Pollard showed fine spatial awareness in the No 12 jersey, off-loaded his longer passes on either side beautifully, gave a couple of enterprising short, cheeky inside ones, and also only underlined his tactical and place-kicking prowess.
They say the mark of a good flyhalf is his ability to seamlessly adjust to the neighbouring channel - the Crusaders’ still-sublime Dan Carter is a good example of that, and if Pollard is even slightly modelling his game on the All Black pin-up’s, then good on him.
So, while some might suggest it unlikely and ironic, are the Bulls slowly going to become some sort of catalyst for a new sense of adventurous spirit in South African rugby?
My own big hope is that the likes of Pollard, Du Plessis and Serfontein don’t get their abundant skills and flair for the unexpected progressively sucked out of them in favour of a stifling, safety-first ethic at Loftus.
It would be such a dreadful waste.*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing