Cape Town – These are indisputably bleak times at Loftus, home of a Blue Bulls team second only to Western Province in history for most Currie Cup titles.
Barring some sort of mathematical miracle, their chances of reaching the knockout phase of this season’s competition have been blown out of the water.
In a reasonably astonishing development, South Africa’s best finishers in the latest edition of Super Rugby (fifth overall and only beaten by seven points in an away quarter-final by the Hurricanes) have melted, a few weeks later, into current wooden-spoonists on the domestic competition’s ladder.
Yes, Pote Human’s charges lie seventh in the single-round Currie Cup with a mere five points and a record of one win and three losses, now beyond the halfway mark for them in round-robin play.
All that remain for them are largely academic, potentially pride-regathering fixtures against neighbours the Lions – only unbeaten side -- in Johannesburg on Saturday (17:15) and then, following a bye, the visit to Pretoria of champions the Sharks a fortnight onward.
A couple of ominous landmarks loom for the Bulls: should they crash to the Sharks, for example, it would complete a rare, perhaps unprecedented Currie Cup programme without a win at their supposed Loftus “fortress”, bearing in mind the already-recorded 43-27 reverse there to the Cheetahs and then last Saturday’s especially galling 37-15 thumping from admirable smaller union and surprise log-leaders Griquas.
A serious danger exists that the Bulls will face the ignominy, for them, of participation in a promotion/relegation tussle if they remain rock bottom to the finish.
But there’s more, as they might say in a Verimark ad: the almost guaranteed likelihood now that the Bulls won’t be getting even close to the title this year would also mean that they’ve gone a full decade, for the first time since the competition became annual in 1968, without hoisting the trophy.
Their last success was in 2009, a time when Springbok superstar figures still tended to play in at least the knockout rounds, and the likes of Bakkies Botha, Victor Matfield, Pierre Spies, Fourie du Preez and Bryan Habana helped them both reach the final and then knock over the Cheetahs 36-24 at Loftus.
But that very point is worth examining, while assessing the Bulls’ present plight.
It serves as a reminder of just how different – and hugely less relevant, regrettably – the Currie Cup is in its modern context.
Truth be told, it has become largely a mere prepping forum – at least for the bigger unions involved -- for the next Super Rugby campaign, and increasingly stripped bare of the premier players on the relevant franchises’ books.
This season, the all too apparent lack of depth in quality, competition-wide, is only aggravated by the especially generous tally of Springboks unavailable for it (or at least good chunks of it) in a World Cup year.
Add to that the depressing countrywide flight of players from SA-based contracts, and increasing tendency of major unions to allow various players to miss the Currie Cup -- in pursuit of shortish, but lucrative stints abroad before returning for Super Rugby – and it becomes even clearer why the “Premier Division” of the once distinguished domestic competition seems suspiciously to some observers like the B-Section of a couple of decades back, from a standards point of view.
So while the Blue Bulls are currently lurching more than they should, bear in mind that – even as they must come to grips with another large-scale exodus of once-valued personnel between seasons – what’s happening right now won’t automatically translate into a miserable Super Rugby 2020.
They had some good things going in both playing style and spirit at times under Human’s tutelage in that competition during 2019, and will be able early next year to reinfuse, just for one thing, their remaining Bok representatives like impressive props Lizo Gqoboka and Trevor Nyakane, and game-breaking fullback Warrick Gelant.
What’s more, a trio of gnarly veterans, two of them already well familiar with the Pretoria rugby culture, are due to join their Super Rugby plans shortly: lock Juandre Kruger, loose forward Josh Strauss and flyhalf Morne Steyn.
All three, even if past their playing primes personally, should act as invaluable mentors within the camp for some of the more callow figures at Loftus required to mature with increased urgency.
In other words, expect a bit less of a “headless chicken” syndrome, once they’re constructively embedded in the system, than may exist within the Bulls’ ranks in the 2019 Currie Cup.
Bulls fans might have been heartened, too, to read weekend reports that the Loftus bosses are eyeing an ambitious raid on WP Rugby for the services of SA Rugby Player of the Year Pieter-Steph du Toit.
Now just imagine how noticeably that coming to possible fruition would stabilise things next year in Jacaranda City …
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing