Johannesburg - It may be a tad ironic that the four players called up to the Springbok training camp from the Vodacom Blue Bulls this past weekend have all been regular second-choice players for coach Frans Ludeke and his team this season.
According to the supersport.com website, as the Blue Bulls sit and contemplate their loss against DHL Western Province in their Absa Currie Cup semi-final this past weekend, there are a number of uncomfortable questions that surround the way the team has performed this season, with new rumours surfacing this weekend that Ludeke’s job may be under fire again.
It has been all quiet at Loftus Versfeld since their semi-final exit – but the team’s tactics and selections have been a constant talking point around Pretoria over the past week as they failed for the third time this season against their greatest domestic rivals – and each time in exactly the same way.
The decision to play Handre Pollard at 12, and not his regular 10 spot, the choice of Werner Kruger ahead of Springbok Marcel van der Merwe in the scrums and tactical and game plan choices at Newlands were the main reasons why the Bulls couldn’t advance further than they could have.
In essence given the season they had, even with the second half rally in the league stages, they were still way off the pace and not on the same level as either of the two finalists that will contest the trophy this coming weekend.
Yet to give all the blame to Ludeke would be wrong, as many of the seeds of their own demise have been laid over the past few years by the irrational and haphazard contracting process that the union has followed, ensuring that so much senior talent has left, that there hasn’t been time to blend the new talent in at all.
The Bulls do still possess the best juniors in the system, a fact that is underlined by both their under-19 and under-21 sides making this week’s junior finals in Cape Town, but the way they have been handled has been strange and not consistent.
While it is a fair question to ask why the Springbok incumbent was forced to play with a sore foot – it had to be injected before kickoff – and not in his regular position at 10, this decision shows more about the comfort levels with the juniors than it does about team selection at senior level.
The Bulls possess Ulrich Beyers who has played a lot of senior rugby at 12, or either of the Kriel brothers – both this year’s SA under-20 stars Jesse and Dan – while last year’s SA under-20 midfielder Rohan Janse van Rensburg could also have slotted into the void left by Burger Odendaal’s injury.
The Bulls often talk about backing their structures, but here is a perfect example of how they failed to back their upcoming talent, and made a decision out of loyalty rather than form.
To be fair to Potgieter, he has had a great season, but to play Pollard out of position was nothing less than wrong. Ditto for Marcel van der Merwe, in sensational form, but who was dropped after a great game for stalwart Kruger, who struggled in the scrums.
Add to that Bongi Mbonambi’s never-ending battle for a starting spot – something that finally happened late in the season – and Rudy Paige’s form above Piet van Zyl and it is clear that the coaching staff have been backing the wrong players for the bigger part of the season.
Ludeke has defended his calls, even though he admitted the game changed in the last 20 when Pollard was shifted to flyhalf. By then, Province were comfortably in control and the Bulls were desperately playing catch-up.
“We backed the call. There will always be turnovers and mistakes. I thought that conversion Pottie put over just before halftime was special, Handre made a difference at 10. He has a different style and different approach. We know what we have for the future. It was always a huge battle for us to get a result here,” Ludeke said after the game.
The Bulls insistence of playing a kick and hope game, without too much accuracy cost them vital ball in the end, and while hindsight may be a perfect science, if it didn’t work in the two games before this weekend’s clash, chances were that it wasn’t going to work again.
That the Bulls learnt the lesson the hard way is sad, as they only have their own failings to blame for their loss, and will now watch the final as spectators, rather than participants.