Bulls in heap of early pain

    2015-02-21 13:00
    TJ Perenara of the Hurricanes tackles Jesse Kriel of the Bulls (Gallo Images)

    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 realistic.

    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 virtually doused.

    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 second period.

    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

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