Bulls to revisit glory days (well, at lock)

    2018-01-23 13:20

    Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

    Cape Town – Head coach John Mitchell is understandably pragmatic about past champions the Bulls’ 2018 Super Rugby campaign.

    He bluntly warned as he revealed his 38-strong squad on Monday: “I don’t want to make any promises on how the team will perform this year … it’s about marginal gains for us.”

    Even the most diehard of the Loftus supporters are likely to reluctantly agree that the 2018 Bulls can’t be branded feasible title – or even SA conference-winning? – material quite yet, especially considering that it will be the former All Black coach’s first campaign in charge of the Pretoria outfit.

    A quick run-through of the Bulls’ youth-themed resources pretty much confirms that fairly notable improvement on their 2017 overall finish (15th out of the then-18 teams) seems their most realistic goal this time around.

    Frankly, in the vast majority of positions they do not yet boast the quality or depth of personnel to genuinely scare the bigger franchises competition-wide into believing the Bulls are dark horses for the silverware.

    But there is one very bright exception: the second row.

    In the shape of Lood de Jager, RG Snyman, Jason Jenkins and Ruben van Heerden, the Bulls seem outstandingly covered for the next few months (Mitchell also named the rangy, Victor Matfield-idolising young Aston Fortuin among his lock arsenal).

    That amounts to enviable depth in the event of injury and, if that bugbear stays largely away, also a confident license for Mitchell to rotate his locks shrewdly for the sake of lasting freshness among them.

    What’s more, all of the likely premier quartet combine the critical attributes of power, grunt, athleticism, mobility and – perhaps above all – serious blessings in the height department.

    If, for example, the Bulls were to put out Snyman (2.06m) and De Jager (2.05m) as starting combo for their first fixture against the Hurricanes (Loftus, February 24), that is a fine recipe for creating chaos on the opposition throw, even if the Bulls may well find the New Zealanders too hot to handle in various other areas on the park.

    Between them, that pair shouldn’t encounter any alliance in the tournament who are their match in the tall-timber department, albeit that the Rebels have snapped up that striking Australian “tower block” Adam Coleman from the controversially ousted Western Force.

    Remember that both De Jager and Snyman have the necessary – and already proven – qualities to seamlessly double as No 4 or 5 second-rowers.

    This will be Big Lood’s second season for the Bulls, and if Mitchell (who played often enough at lock himself during his own first-class career) manages to coax the sort of form that earned him SA Rugby Player of the Year in 2015 out of the former Cheetahs favourite, it will only emphasise their gifts in the position.

    De Jager is the Bok incumbent at No 5 anyway, but he is also a challenger for the Bok “four” task in the event that Stormers hard man Eben Etzebeth, still the country’s top second-rower, doesn’t recover from his injury in time to play the home series against England in June.

    That said, Snyman and Jenkins should also be ready to pounce on any opportunity to force a gap into Bok favour; the former is still only 22 (albeit 23 next week) but embarking on his third Super Rugby season, and the latter the same age and also braced for his third crack at the southern hemisphere competition.

    This particular duo have also had the useful, mind-broadening experience of late of plying their trades for a while in Japanese rugby with Honda Heat and Toyota Verblitz respectively.

    But if competition for Bulls places will be tough enough just between De Jager, Snyman and Jenkins, we need to introduce at this point the constructive, and not so little curveball of Van Heerden (2m, 115kg).

    Only 20, this mobile but forceful former Affies pupil, also valued for his high tackle counts, got a reasonable sampling of the big time when he played generous stretches of the 2017 Currie Cup for the Blue Bulls, including the semi-final where their hopes were eventually scuppered by the Sharks in Durban.

    He could well prove some sort of Super Rugby rookie bolter this year, given enough opportunities and the character not to feel overawed.

    The whole situation in the Loftus lock cupboard harks back just a little – even though the current quartet would probably be quick to acknowledge they have a way to go in reputation-building yet – to the Bulls’ title-dominating heyday between 2007 and 2010.

    Then, albeit not always simultaneously, they had on their books a massively formidable foursome of all-international second row stocks in Matfield, Bakkies Botha, Flip van der Merwe and the versatile Danie Rossouw.

    The present group have the potential to gradually challenge that clique of excellence, especially if they can somehow be kept together – sadly, a limited likelihood only? -- for more than just the 2018 season.

    Now if only the Bulls of today boasted such rosy resources in other positions …

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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