Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - Following the more upbeat-angled first assessment, these are the reasons why I believe the Bulls AREN’T guaranteed to rise from the doldrums this season:
READ - BULLS Super Rugby focus: Their strengths
Their suspect scrum
This has been a sore point for the Bulls, strangely, for many years ... remember, it was well less than a thing of beauty for them even in their halcyon days between 2007 and 2010, when their pack was better respected for Victor Matfield-led lineout prowess and its collective physicality and ruthlessness in open play than for any special aura at scrum time.
Nor has the situation looked like resolving itself in more recent times; it may have only worsened.
That is reflected in the fact that the Bulls, at least according to one stats barometer, had the second-worst scrum win percentage success in the entire competition last season - they ranked a pitiful 14th.
It is an area new head coach Pote Human will probably seek to roll his sleeves up in with special zeal, although whether they have the personnel to suddenly become a scrummaging force remains doubtful.
Since last season, after all, they have lost broad-shouldered first-choice loosehead prop Pierre Schoeman (aged only 24) to Edinburgh, while veteran former Springbok captain and sturdy hooker Adriaan Strauss has retired.
It may be crucial, then, that this is the season when Trevor Nyakane finally comes of age as a consistent factor on the tighthead side, and Lizo Gqoboka puts his injury setbacks well behind him in the No 1 jersey, assuming he can nail it down for himself.
The arrival of Schalk Brits to the hooking ranks brings a simultaneous wealth of scrumming experience (and mentorship) from his long chapter in European climes, but keep in mind that he isn’t exactly a John Smit, Tom Lawton or Federico Mendez type for pure tonnage ...
The effect of instability in the head-coach role
Another season, another new coaching ideology to digest.
That is something that the Bulls players have to deal with again in 2019, as it heralds their third new head coach in as many years following the prior periods of Nollis Marais and John Mitchell at the helm.
Every coach has his own methods and it may take time for the squad to bed down properly to Human’s ways while they also “flush out”, to an extent, the game-plan of single-minded predecessor Mitchell.
On the plus side, the big, 59-year-old former Eastern Province and Free State loose forward has Loftus associations stretching back to 2005 in a coaching-staff capacity - he also masterminded Tuks for several seasons - so he will hardly set off cold; many of the players will have a pretty good idea of what makes him tick.
But this is also his most demanding responsibility in a tracksuit, as he is a Super Rugby head-coaching rookie and no doubt painfully aware of the impatience in Pretoria for him to deliver a properly competitive side this year.
Waving a magic wand in his very first campaign seems a big ask ...
Unknown potential of their Sevens acquisitions
The availability to the Bulls’ cause this year of former SA Sevens hotshots Rosko Specman and Dylan Sage could help spice up their backline attack significantly.
“Could”, however, is the operative word: Sevens players making the transition to (or in some cases back to) XVs isn’t a guaranteed passport to rapid success. Both wide players will be competing with more established customers, too, for Bulls starts.
That said, Sage has some experience of Ikey Tigers, WP and Western Force squad stints in the 15-man fold, while the predatory, twinkle-toed Specman (now in his 30th year) will boast even more “muscle memory” of the XVs game, following decent spells with the likes of the Pumas, Sharks and Cheetahs.
Remember that one of the recent doyens of the global Sevens stage, Seabelo Senatla, hasn’t found the going too smooth yet for the Stormers/WP, sometimes struggling in positioning terms on defence and generally finding it harder to impose himself on matches (though injury interruptions haven’t aided him).
By contrast, strapping former BlitzBoks colleague Ruhan Nel - a bit less highly touted when he returned to XVs - is looking the real deal as an outside centre at Newlands.
So the proof will very much be in the pudding over the next few months for Specman and Sage in Pretoria.
A rough end to their roster
The potential for the Bulls to strike up treasured momentum in the first half (at least) of their 2019 programme has already been discussed in part one of this study.
But now for the flip side of the coin: if they haven’t managed to get themselves somewhere among the pace-setters by then, there is the considerable danger that they simply slide back into rank mediocrity toward the closing weeks of ordinary season.
That is because the Bulls undertake their hazardous four-match, main overseas leg as late as mid-May ... and they are less than wonderful travellers.
While Rebels, Brumbies, Blues and Highlanders in that order is not the scariest Australasian tour agenda of all time, the Bulls cannot take even a single win for granted in the period; 2018 saw them beaten abroad by all of the Reds, Chiefs, Crusaders, Jaguares and - a real nadir for them - even the basement Sunwolves in Singapore.
It seems clear the Bulls need a fairly comfortable cushion on the table (both conference and broader) ahead of their frontline tour this year, or else ...
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