Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - These are the reasons why I believe the Bulls COULD make a better fist of their 2019 Super Rugby campaign than they did last year, when they ended a disappointing 12th overall:
Several potentially deadly individuals
Much will depend on whether they all stay fit, but the Loftus-based side - for all their ongoing limitations in some positions - will boast an impressive list of X-factor characters in their ranks this year.
Mobile Springbok lock Lood de Jager should be emboldened even more in his own game by the captaincy responsibility this season, Duane Vermeulen provides an invaluable element of steel and nous to their pack from the No 8 berth, we may see influential things from the now budding Papier-Pollard alliance at ever-important “nine and ten”, and Warrick Gelant is just about as capable as any fullback in the competition of real sting from the back of the park.
Then there’s bolters like Schalk Brits and Cornal Hendricks to consider: the former, who turns a fairly novel 38 in May, may be managed carefully, but the devilish-stepping hooker remains a thrill factor in open play and source of enormous, hugely-travelled wisdom.
Hendricks is no less interesting a case; considerably younger at 30, he has had medical red-tape sagas galore due to a heart condition, but with a green light at last for resumption of first-class competition, will the Bok wing (last capped in 2015) recapture his healthy scent of the try-line? Instinct, after all, tends not to change.
Enviable lineout capability
Who would wish to be the opposition hooker (any of them in the competition, really) throwing in to a critical lineout against the Bulls and seeing their array of tall, magnificently agile timber lining up hungrily for a possible poach?
Why would you even bother trying to contest the Bulls’ own throw, too?
Especially whenever they field the Bok duo of De Jager (2.06m) and RG Snyman (even more of a skyscraper at 2.07m) as their main locks, there is going to precious little scope for dominance in this area by their rival second-rowers. Snyman returned from a short-term Japanese stint recently with an ankle injury, but will hopefully be back in action by around round five or six.
As if that wasn’t enough, remember that Vermeulen, among the many other attributes that have him probably still among the premier three eighth-men in the world, is a lineout player of quite enormous class at the tail, as well.
Desperation to relive the glory days
Wow, how things have taken a turn - and almost unrelentingly for the worse - for the Bulls since their last of three Super Rugby title successes in 2010.
They have subsequently been a shadow of their former, legends-laden selves, something reflected in their tournament finishes since then: seventh in 2011, fifth in 2012, second in 2013, ninth in each of 2014, 2015 and 2016, 15th in the nadir of 2017 and 12th last year.
Now the task falls upon Pote Human, in his maiden season as head coach, to generate the required self-belief in the present squad to at least aim to come significantly closer to recapturing the dominance and aura of the 2007-10 period.
Winning more regularly will certainly be the best way to get crowds flocking back to former “Fortress Loftus” in healthier numbers.
But this particular Bulls group will also be very mindful (call it first things first?) of the need to end a reputation more recently of being the weakest of the four major South African franchises performance-wise - certainly their plight in both 2017 and 2018, so they will wish to stave off an ignominious hat-trick.
There are just about enough classy individuals to give them genuine hope of climbing up from the bottom rung of the domestic ladder ...
Little travel for first three months
If ever a team had an opportunity to build a strong head of steam, it is the Bulls in 2019.
They spend roughly the first three months of the competition almost exclusively on South African soil, including seven matches in Pretoria itself and having a few mere short-haul flights, of course, to derby fixtures.
The lone exception in that period, and just for a few days, is a trip to Buenos Aires to play the Jaguares in round two on February 23.
It is only from May 17 onward that they may start pining for “ma se kos” ... but that is a story for another day.
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