Brenden Nel - SuperSport
Johannesburg - The Bulls left South Africa en route to Christchurch in good spirits on Monday night, even though there aren’t too many people giving them a chance to succeed in New Zealand.
SuperSport.com reports that coach Frans Ludeke added Flip van der Merwe, who returns from a hip injury, and Dawie Steyn to the 22-man squad that did duty against the Lions this past weekend for the Super Rugby qualifier against their old foe, the seven-time champion Crusaders on Saturday.
But after a good Monday morning training session, the team headed to the airport after a brief goodbye to family for a game that will determine their season this year.
And its no surprise that the Bulls are being seen as underdogs for the match, with the Crusaders probably the most dangerous team in the playoffs at the moment.
The travel factor must play a massive part in this part of the long season, with a 12-hour flight to Sydney, followed by almost two hours at the Sydney Kingston airport before heading to Christchurch, to arrive just before midnight on Tuesday night.
It is a bit of a new feeling being written off in most quarters by everybody, but Ludeke said on departure he wasn’t really worried by it all, and the team would do their talking on the field.
“The process will be vital for us. Obviously you need a solid plan there, and to execute it for 80 minutes. All the rest of it is just talk. We know it’s a once-off game, a playoff and we’re looking forward to playing on Saturday,” Ludeke said.
Still, as the team boarded the bus for the airport, there was a jovial atmosphere among the players. Given the amount of experience they lost at the end of last year, where Boks Victor Matfield, Fourie du Preez, Bakkies Botha, Danie Rossouw, Gurthro Steenkamp and Gary Botha - among others - all either retired or headed overseas, there was a genuine apprehension about their prospects this season.
By making the Qualifiers, they achieved their first goal, and while it may not be seen as the result they want, the team has already ticked the boxes they set for themselves this season.
So anything now will be a bonus. But don’t tell Ludeke and co that, they certainly are determined to succeed. They have beaten the Crusaders three times in a row in the playoffs, although all three were either at Loftus Versfeld or Soweto’s Orlando Stadium, and the prospect of winning in an icy cold Christchurch is something altogether different and way more difficult.
It won’t have escaped them that they were in control of their own destiny on Saturday night against the Lions and by securing the bonus point, they chose to head to New Zealand, where their record is not as good as in Australia.
But the Bulls have simply put their heads down and focused on the task, with the extra day in South Africa being seen as a bonus for their efforts.
“There were two flights booked. We took the option for Monday and its always been better for us to fly out as late as possible. We did our preparation this morning, and we will have a final run over there when we arrive. At this stage of the season everything must be in place. It’s all about getting that mental focus that you want,” Ludeke said.
The Bulls will get their first taste of Christchurch conditions on Wednesday, and have a captain’s run on Thursday. But by Saturday they will know what to expect in their daunting task, and the rest of us will know if they are up to it.