Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Strong candidate for most futile sporting arguments: which team has been responsible for South Africa’s most prosperous, pride-swelling era in Super Rugby?
It is, of course, the Bulls of 2007 to 2010 - with just one strange “wobble” campaign in between - as the country’s lone winners of the overall title in professional times thus far, and on three occasions in the period.
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That ascent to consistent glory, as is so often the case in team sport, wasn’t always marked by the most inviting of scents from the Pretoria pot.
Often quite lamentably poor in the earliest years of the competition, the Bulls came very gradually to the boil: sixth out of 12 in 2003, sixth again in 2004; further patient progress to losing, away semi-finalists in each of 2005 and 2006.
When they did finally scale the headiest levels of all, it was also with two coaches - first Heyneke Meyer (2007) and then Frans Ludeke, at the helm of both the 2009 and 2010 triumphs - who had veritably experienced rugby’s knocks and bumps, while so clearly exhibiting the necessary character and self-belief to bounce back with some vengeance.
Meyer presided over 2000 (second-last) and 2002 (rock bottom, no wins) earlier campaigns at Loftus, while his successor to silverware glory Ludeke had also been well less than distinguished in separate periods of high command with the Cats in 2002 and 2006.
In some respects, there were unmistakable parallels between the Bulls’ rise and that of the Springbok national team of the time, who had had some painful experiences under Jake White’s charge before surging to World Cup triumph in France in 2007 ... only some five months after the Bulls had become South Africa’s first, overdue winners of “Super Rugby-proper”, which had convened in 1996.
There were notable common denominators in core personnel: this was, in general terms, the heyday (or very near it) of several loyal, Loftus-based icons like the revered lock pairing of Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha, bruising but unassuming utility forward Danie Rossouw, galloping No 8 and bundle of muscle Pierre Spies, the game-controlling genius who was Fourie du Preez at scrumhalf, and the eagle-eyed wing express Bryan Habana.
It is also no coincidence that the Bulls’ three titles in those four intoxicating years were almost always marked by their fielding of a combined tactical- and place-kicking maestro at flyhalf: first Derick “Liefling” Hougaard who drove the 2007 success in that channel, and then another emerging, fresh-faced pin-up figure in Morne Steyn, who was hugely influential in the onward charges to the pinnacles of 2009 and 2010.
Only to become more hugely decorated and holder of numerous records as the years advanced, Matfield was a fulcrum figure both in leadership and for his direction of and personal mastery at lineout time - an area where the Bulls could so often be trusted for ascendancy.
Strangely for a team basing much of their success on the bullying physicality of their pack as a collective (mastermind Meyer was always clever at teeing up a “subdue first, then penetrate” on-field ethic), the Bulls’ glory years were seldom marked by a routinely forceful scrum, but they found ways around that drawback a lot of the time.
Particularly at then-Fortress Loftus, once they had established testosterone-driven physical dominance, they were renowned for turning on the ball-in-hand charm as well, taking merciless advantage of opponents’ leaden legs at high altitude.
Which was the most memorable of their three crowns?
I would argue that 2007 is possibly the premier candidate, simply because of the stirring novelty of a first ever South African triumph (with due apologies to the Transvaal team who won the experimental Super 10 in more markedly “amateur” times) and the fact that it was achieved - unlike their next two - in a final away from the highveld.
There was also the thrill of how the Bulls ensured a strong knockout seeding: they entered their last-round, home tussle with the Reds needing a bonus-point victory just to ensure a semis ticket, and very quickly (first quarter) stampeded to four tries.
Then a 45-point win margin became target for a third-placed log finish, and finally knowledge that if they could crack 72-point margin put a particularly tasty carrot in front of their noses: trouncing the Queenslanders by that or more would ensure a home semi, as second-placed finishers to the Sharks.
The Bulls romped to a fairy-tale, record-breaking 92-3 win, featuring 13 tries (including a brace each to Habana, Spies, Wikus van Heerden and Derick Kuun), to dramatically have the luxury of hosting the travelling Crusaders in a Loftus last-four date.
Ironically the semi featured no tries at all ... but eight penalties and a dropped goal to Hougaard saw them gallop to a convincing 27-12 result.
So it was onward to Durban for a tough-to-call, all-SA clash in the final (a maiden occurrence) featuring a galaxy of Springboks in both starting line-ups.
It is deeply etched in our first-class rugby history that the Sharks appeared to have ground out a 19-13 triumph, only to fail to twig, in the 82nd minute, that simply putting the ball into touch would ensure them the silverware.
In the bedlam of 50 000-plus crowd noise, however, an ill-advised, downfield relieving kick found itself in the hands of that alert predator Habana, whose instincts told him - a brilliant decision - that an in-field personal dart was the right medicine.
The flying wing found a surprisingly gaping hole in the tiring Sharks’ defence to dive over theatrically ... and crucially close enough to the posts to ensure a comfortable conversion for a 20-19, truly eleventh-hour snatch of the spoils by the visitors.
Unfamiliar and uncomfortable, it seems in retrospect, with their status as defending champions, the Bulls of 2008 receded rather badly to a 10th-place finish, although it was also the lone year when leader Matfield took a brief “sabbatical” in a stint abroad with Toulon.
By 2009, they were back with a vengeance, and topped the table on each occasion to ensure eventual rights to respective home showpieces.
The first was against Mils Muliaina and company of the unsuspecting Chiefs, who ended up being victims of still the most one-sided final in terms of width of margin: they were thumped 61-17 and by eight tries to two at Loftus.
Probably more treasured a year onward, considering it came through a classic old “north versus south” tussle at Orlando Stadium (Loftus being prepped for the soccer World Cup soon afterwards) was the 25-17 triumph in an uncompromising arm-wrestle against the Stormers, who now featured former Bulls favourite Habana in their midst.
The Capetonians registered two tries to one, but the Bulls had commanded field position for the most part, and it helped explain why Steyn’s six-out-of-seven tally off the penalty tee (plus a conversion of Francois Hougaard’s try) ended up being pivotal to the outcome.
It was to be quite emphatically the end of that prosperous era in Pretoria: the Bulls have not graced the final since, and only reached one further semi, in 2013 when they blew it 23-26 against White’s Brumbies charges at Loftus; the former Bok coach is ironically now tasked with engineering a gradual return to those halcyon days of the late 2000s ...
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READ | Fine SA Super Rugby vintages: Stormers 1999 & 2012
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