Johannesburg - Bulls coach Frans Ludeke faces one of the toughest challenges of his career this week – resurrecting the Bulls campaign.
According to the supersport.com website, two losses at home from two outings has piled on the pressure for the Bulls, with the prospect of their Vodacom Super Rugby campaign further coming off the rails if they don’t beat the Cell C Sharks this coming weekend at Loftus.
And given their current form, it is a mighty ask.
All the promise and excitement pre-season for the Bulls with big victories over Saracens and the Toyota Cheetahs has been burnt up by two mediocre outings on their own hallowed turf.
Now, for the first time in his tenure as coach of the Bulls, Ludeke must find the answers for a season that is stuttering from the start.
The talk of rebuilding is no longer a factor, with a fully fit side, and 12 Springboks in their ranks, the Bulls cannot use that excuse anymore.
Even in 2008, the last time Ludeke faced such a crisis in his opening season, the Bulls managed to win at home. In 2014 when they lost their opening two games, both were away from home, allowing the Bulls to get close to the playoffs with an unbeaten run at their Loftus fortress.
But now, for the first time since 2008, they have lost their opening two fixtures.
And there is growing unease at Loftus Versfeld, especially among the fans, who are voting with their feet at the team’s performances. The opening fixture against the Stormers attracted 37000 fans, a figure that dropped to 12000 on Friday night against the Hurricanes, and while Friday night fixtures against foreign teams often struggle to attract fans, the Bulls performances aren’t helping either.
There is a growing chorus that is targeting Ludeke and not the players for the team’s problems, especially in terms of conservative choices in selection and game plan.
The Bulls struggles up front, despite having several Boks in their ranks, the inability of their setpieces to put any pressure on opposition and their poor form in terms of finishing off the opportunities they create are all worries that still have to be addressed by the team.
The Sharks showed just how powerful they could be in the driving Durban rain in the setpieces, and now that they have achieved dominance up front once, they will be looking to repeat that at Loftus on Saturday.
If the Bulls lose to the Sharks at home – a third consecutive home loss – their chances of making the playoffs will be extremely slim – especially as they aren’t known for getting wins on the road, something they will then have to do to get back into contention.
Already there are rumours at Loftus about Ludeke’s position, with the coach being called in after the Stormers game by the board to explain the team’s loss. After a struggling 2014 season where the team’s finances were dealt a blow and players left in droves because of the team’s recruitment policy, it was hoped that 2015 would bring better results.
But suddenly the Bulls look toothless up front, and their senior players are lacking the impact that is needed. To say that teams no longer fear the Loftus factor, nor the Bulls pack, is an understatement.
Still, Ludeke remains positive, and believes his team need just one win to rectify matters and get their season on track. Despite the enormity of the Sharks challenge, the Bulls believe they can win on Saturday and make things right.
“When you have two performances like that, the best thing to do is just keep quiet and fix it,” Ludeke said.
“We know the areas, there are no grey areas that we need to guess what is costing us. We need to improve. Last week there were some areas that cost us, and we need to be more accurate.”
“There must be more urgency because we lost balls at breakdowns that we could have prevented.
“But you know what is needed, we just need that first win and things start falling into place. We’re positive though, we must just keep our heads down. It’s a long season, it’s a tough competition. We need to manage that first win, hopefully next week we can get a result.”
Ludeke said in the week before the Hurricanes the game was a “must-win” for the team. The Sharks game has an even higher importance after the loss to the New Zealand side.
But Ludeke points out it is a marathon, not a sprint that wins Super Rugby competitions, and considering he won in 2009 and 2010, he should be given a chance to rectify matters. But it is clear the patience is wearing thin.
“It’s also a must win,” Ludeke added referring to the Sharks game.
“If we say it’s a must win, we realise how important the game is. When you miss out, you need to keep your focus and attitude. This week is a vital one.
“I’ve seen a lot of sides that have lost their first four games, and went on. It’s all about getting back on the horse, getting that first win and focusing on next week.
“Don’t focus on the season, just make sure we focus on next week and do what we have to do.”
This weekend’s game against the Sharks would already have been a pressure-cooker, no matter when in the season it is played.
But for the Bulls it has become critical, and for Ludeke the task is excruciatingly important to get right.
More than the points on offer are at stake.