Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - Lesser teams than three-time Super Rugby champions the Bulls have shown that a healthy dose of team spirit and unity can compensate for shortcomings in aura or genuinely widespread class, often still powering you a long way.
But when you are looking both tactically numb and visibly failing to cut it for hunger and energy too, it is a lethal cocktail of trouble.
That is the predicament the Bulls appear to find themselves in, just one game into their three-match overseas tour and with their entire 2017 campaign already in serious danger of unravelling for any knockout-phase potential.
They sport one win from four starts, a glaringly imperfect home triumph over the Sunwolves, and were so badly outsmarted by the moderate Blues (38-14) in the first game of their New Zealand trek that the traditionally even sturdier Chiefs must be awaiting them only with relish.
After all, the Bulls nominally - and now so deceptively, it seems - beat them in a pre-season friendly in neutral Brisbane, so plans to get even will be at an advanced stage and any complacency from the undefeated Mooloo Men highly unlikely at Waikato Stadium.
Defeat on Saturday, inevitably widely anticipated, would leave the considerable risk of the Loftus-based side falling some 16 points or more behind compatriots the Stormers already in Africa Conference 1 - Robbie Fleck’s charges will definitely be deemed favourites to beat the Cheetahs at Newlands just a few hours later.
Even with much more than half of the roster still to play, that would be a very serious amount of ground to claw back, wouldn’t it?
There is one good reason to feel some sympathy for the Bulls; to partly understand why their start to the 2017 competition has been so sickly: it was a tough ask to make them kick off with successive away derbies against the Stormers and Cheetahs, and then have only one home fixture before grabbing their passports for NZ.
But what will be irking their fans to an increasing degree is how strategically featureless and motley, frankly, Nollis Marais’s charges have largely looked for their first month.
They just appear to be content to spend more time tripping over the feet of each other in scrambling defence and general back-pedalling mode than plotting their own constructive methods to breach opposition defences.
It has been lame stuff from a team who used to pride themselves in murderous physical domination and collective pack zeal as a vital source of go-forward.
You almost sense that the current bunch think they can dine out on past reputation; the assumption that their foes will automatically fear them for brawny qualities that have instead only wilted to a significant degree.
Funnily enough, even in the protracted heydays of heavyweight Loftus figures in every sense like Bakkies Botha, Danie Rossouw, Victor Matfield and company, the Bulls weren’t a conspicuous scrumming force - a situation that has only worsened progressively - but they had a cohesive, no-nonsense ethic that still made them a feared unit for pure, bruise-inducing mongrel in general play and Matfield’s uncanny ability to wreak havoc with rival lineout plans through his telepathic reading of their coded intentions.
Clockwork precision at the lineouts meant often unstoppable mauls off that phase and, especially during the best of Heyneke Meyer’s time in charge of the franchise, a broad determination to boss collisions and ensure forward motion also translated gradually during matches into slick backline raids and easy-on-the-eye tries.
On early evidence this year, the Bulls have lost much of that robust energy, and coach Marais has arguably been made to look a little like Allister Coetzee with his ill-fated 2016 Springboks: caught between trying to preserve traditional strengths and an indecisive quest for a more “total” brand of rugby.
What we have seen from the Bulls, as a consequence, has been an insipid, “in-between” sort of approach with players looking ill at ease over what the game-plan actually is and how to execute it.
There were some near-laughable moments from the Bulls both in defensive alignment (or rather the lack of it) and commitment in the tackle against the Blues, with left wing Jamba Ulengo, a Bok debutant in the last Test of 2016 against Wales, a special culprit with some fatally limp, help-you-on-your-way moments.
He is a better player than that.
Not that he was the only less than full-blooded-looking Bulls player at Albany: a considerably more experienced international in Jan Serfontein was disappointingly muted at inside centre.
At least on paper against the Blues, Serfontein looked as though he was going to be part of a reasonably slippery, attack-conscious back division as a whole, but the collective threat ended up being minimal.
Mind you, the Bulls are being hampered in any offensive intentions - something hardly making Handre Pollard’s rather painstaking clawback from injury any easier - by a shortage of clean, swift front-foot ball from the forward unit.
There are gifted individuals amidst the Bulls’ eight, but right now they appear to be playing too much as exactly that … individuals.
Who provides the major fire from the belly, constructively infecting all around him in the pack?
You’d like it to be someone like Lood de Jager, the towering second-rower Meyer coaxed such rousing displays out of whenever he was summoned to battle during RWC 2015, but he is another operating well below known premier levels at this point even if he doing the less glamorous side of his donkeywork - like tackling, and opposition maul-stopping – solidly enough.
Being underdogs (as will pretty vastly be the case against the Chiefs) is one thing, and all teams have strategic/tactical uncertainties from time to time.
But if the Bulls are noticeably short on collective zest and desire once more in Hamilton - especially if they again slip behind early - coach Marais, among others, may have some increasingly uncomfortable questions to answer...
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