Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – Even before kick-off in their Super Rugby round
two match against the Hurricanes at Loftus, it was easy to surmise that the
people of Pretoria have serious doubts about the title potential of the Bulls’
brains trust and playing staff of 2015.
How else do you explain that a crowd reportedly short of the
12,000-mark turned out for an attractive-looking early season clash – at least
on paper – with a traditionally free-spirited New Zealand outfit boasting an
All Blacks-laden backline?
Genuine faith in the current troops is clearly in short
supply, because in past years the three-time champions would have lured far
more people through the turnstiles at this infant stage of the campaign in
pleasantly balmy Highveld conditions. (Yes, that’s even taking into account the
sacrilegious event this year of a first-up loss to arch-rivals the Stormers.)
Don’t expect the love at Loftus to grow too considerably in
the next few weeks, either, given that Pierre Spies’s side have now also
botched Friday’s date against the ‘Canes 17-13, for a feeble harvest of one log
point from a possible 10 thus far.
It’s the proverbial back-foot start -- a little against the
odds after some good vibes in pre-season – and the Bulls now run the
considerable risk of “Fortress Loftus” being downgraded further from that
status if the Sharks manage a successful derby raid next Saturday.
Perhaps it is premature to talk of any crisis: two swift
losses with 14 games still to go in ordinary season isn’t yet sufficient
evidence to dispense lame-duck labels.
The Bulls also have a whole nine fixtures all on South
African soil still to negotiate before they set off on the ever-tricky trek
overseas, so from that point a view the opportunity to stabilise remains fairly
They are also entitled to bemoan a few “if onlys” from
Friday’s gut-wrencher: like Grant Hattingh infuriatingly putting his left hand
onto the touchline as he crashed over for what should have been the
match-winning late try of a tight but largely low-quality scrap.
Flyhalf Handre Pollard, one of few Bulls players to enhance
his reputation on the night, also whacked an upright with a long-range penalty,
whilst Australian referee Andrew Lees missed some cynical bits of obstructive
conduct at vital times by the visitors.
Yet the danger remains now that by the time the Bulls do
reach for their passports in mid-May, their playoffs fire may already have been
The home loss to the Hurricanes, after all, may well prove
down the line to have been a double negative for them: the New Zealanders are
exactly the kind of team also wishing to be “thereabouts” for finals series
qualification, and as captain Conrad Smith delightedly said after the final
whistle: “I don’t think I’ve ever won both my two (matches) over here ... two
out of Africa is a good start for us!”
Keep in mind, in addition, that last season the Bulls hardly
covered themselves in glory in Australasia, losing all four games as they
missed out on the playoffs by four points in the end.
The Bulls fatally creaked against the Hurricanes in areas
many observers won’t be too surprised about at present: their broad game-plan
still looks too predictable, the scrum -- and even once-famed lineout –
struggled and they were woeful in trying to achieve continuity of phases, where
turnovers came dime-a-dozen to the gleeful opposition.
As former All Blacks coach and SuperSport pundit John
Mitchell said candidly: “Something has to change ... the model they’ve believed
in is just not working.”
On the plus side, veteran Victor Matfield had a much more
industrious match than he did against the Stormers, Lappies Labuschagne carried
the ball energetically, and rookie fullback Jesse Kriel was marvellously
elusive on rare occasions he was able to attack in space.
The set-piece also improved to a noticeable degree when
fit-again Dean Greyling was introduced to the loosehead prop position in the
But the greatly talented Pollard, well as he played at
all-important pivot under the circumstances, is not being helped by certain
woes both on his inside and immediate outside: scrumhalf Piet van Zyl lacks the
tactical mastery that was once a hallmark of the great Fourie du Preez in the
berth, and at No 12 Jan Serfontein has worryingly lost a fair bit of his
X-factor for the time being.
In Serfontein’s case, maybe the blunt battle-plan isn’t
doing the Springbok any favours.
If the Loftus drawing board isn’t busy over the next few
days, it should be ...*Follow
our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing