A once-great Bulls franchise faces a fight for respect and relevance in 2019, writes Jon Cardinelli. This article first appeared in the February 2019 issue of SA Rugby magazine.

Super Rugby Bulls and their fallen empire

The late withdrawal of Victor Matfield from the Bulls head coach race, and the subsequent appointment of Pote Human on 12 December, prompted new questions and concerns over the state of affairs at the once-mighty franchise.

The three-time Super Rugby champions have been in steady decline since 2011. What transpired in 2018, however – from the last-place finish in the South African conference to the laboured and ultimately unsuccessful process to secure a like-for-like successor to coach John Mitchell – served to highlight the severity of the situation at Loftus Versfeld.

The Bulls are still searching for solutions to various problems at all levels of the game.

In 2012, lock Juandré Kruger told SA Rugby magazine that most young South African forwards viewed a stint with the Bulls as a springboard to Springbok selection – and he was right in the sense that he graduated to the national side a few months after representing the Bulls in that 2012 Super Rugby tournament. Nowadays, the union doesn’t command the same respect and pull.

Super Rugby Bulls Bulls and their fallen empire in recent seasons

Coaches, players and even administrators are happy to seek opportunities elsewhere, as standards have slumped to an alarming low. Pumas coach Jimmy Stonehouse, considered a front-runner for the head coach post at one point last year, bemoaned the manner in which the administration went about recruiting a replacement for Mitchell and opted to withdraw. Kings coach Deon Davids, who has ambitions to coach one of the traditional powerhouses and eventually the Boks, was overlooked.

Former Bok and Bulls scrum-half Fourie du Preez publicly criticised the decisions made by the administration since 2011, and denied that he would be taking up an assistant coach position alongside Matfield. At the 11th hour, Matfield turned the Bulls down, citing family commitments and ‘job insecurity’ as the reasons for leaving his beloved team – whom he captained to three titles between 2007 and 2010 – in the lurch.

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The Bulls and SA Rugby moved quickly to talk up the involvement of Rassie Erasmus at the franchise in 2019, which led to more questions regarding the Bok coach’s focus on one particular franchise. That announcement did little to soften the blows of Du Preez’s words and Matfield’s decision, though. The Bulls were, and still are, in dire straits. Blue Bulls president Willem Strauss, new director of rugby Alan Zondagh and Human himself made all the right noises when they fronted the media at Loftus in mid-December. However, there was no getting around the fact that the late appointment had compromised the team before its first fixture against the Stormers on 16 February.

The Bulls’ desperate decision to elevate an assistant coach is similar to the call made by the Stormers bosses when Eddie Jones left the Cape franchise after only a week at the helm in late 2015. Robbie Fleck was promoted and a move to recruit Mitchell was blocked. 

One could make a solid argument – based on the shocking results between 2016 and 2018 – that the Stormers are worse off now than they were during the latter years of Allister Coetzee’s tenure.

Super Rugby Bulls and their fallen empire

In the luke-warm seat: Bulls boss Pote Human (Getty Images)

South African rugby fans expect more from the Bulls, though. There was a time when the Bulls were recognised as one of the top franchises on the planet. Then coach Heyneke Meyer put the necessary structures in place during the early-2000s, and the union reaped significant rewards in the form of five Currie Cups and three Super Rugby titles.

The set-up at Loftus was the envy of every South African union. When Meyer and a host of coaches and support staff – not least of all Ian Schwartz, who played a key role in contracting players to the Bulls during that golden era – joined the Boks in 2012, the means to innovate and stay ahead of the chasing pack went with them.

Du Preez summed it up best in his complaint to the media late last year.

“The current structures at the Bulls make success highly unlikely,” he told Netwerk24. “Poor decision-making has seen the Bulls stagnate from one of the best teams to an average side and no one has taken responsibility for that decline.”

The results achieved between 2011 and 2018 paint a bleak picture. The Bulls have reached the Super Rugby playoffs on just two occasions over the past eight seasons. They haven’t won a knockout game since 2010.

There was a time when the Bulls relished the big occasion and led the way in terms of mental strength. These days, they lack the ability to compete abroad and challenge the New Zealand teams on a regular basis.

Since 2014, the Bulls have lost 19 out of 21 overseas matches – a record that includes historic losses to the Sunwolves in Asia and the Jaguares in Argentina. Much was made about their win over the Hurricanes in Pretoria last season, but more should be read into the fact they’ve lost 23 out of 30 matches against Kiwi opposition since 2011 and haven’t won a game on New Zealand soil since 2013.

Super Rugby Bulls and their fallen empire

All tied up: Lood De Jager takes contact against the Jaguares (Getty Images)

Many of the South African franchises, and indeed the Boks, have battled to win overseas in recent times. The Lions, however, have enjoyed success locally as far as Super Rugby is concerned. Together, the Sharks and Western Province have accounted for six of the last nine Currie Cup titles. But the Bulls have been consistently poor across both competitions. They have progressed to one domestic final – which they lost to the Cheetahs in 2016 – since last winning the title in 2009.

Personnel is part of the problem. The Bulls’ recruitment strategy and their inability to retain promising players have been heavily criticised. The pressure is on men like Zondagh, the new director of rugby, to succeed where others have failed.

“I’ve worked with young players for many years and I think the most important thing at a union or franchise like this is the Super Rugby team,’ the former WP coach said. ‘And if we get young players into our system, we have to develop them in such a way that they are knocking on the Super Rugby door every year. We have to look at our systems and get to the point where our young players break into the Super Rugby squad. That is my main job.

“You can get the best players from school, but if you don’t work with them properly and develop them continuously, they are not going to be the players you want them to be by the time they get to professional rugby. It takes a player about five years before he gets to senior rugby. So you have to invest that amount of time into most players. And I’m not talking about the Handré Pollards, Pat Lambies and Curwin Bosches. Most of the time it’s the fly-halves who get into senior ranks quicker. I’m talking about the rest of the boys.”

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The previous Bulls coaches must take some responsibility for the results recorded since 2011. Frans Ludeke, who was at the helm when the Bulls won back-to-back titles, was eventually forced out after his side finished ninth in the 2015 standings. Nollis Marais’ side made history for all the wrong reasons – Crusaders coach Scott Robertson was almost apologetic after the Kiwi giants put 10 tries past the Bulls in the 62-24 win at Loftus in 2017. While Robertson criticised the fitness of the South African teams in general, it was clear the Bulls wanted for tempo and accuracy in subsequent matches. Mitchell attempted to address this problem before the 2018 season, and yet the side still failed to produce 80-minute performances and ultimately finished last in the South African conference.

Super Rugby Bulls and their fallen empire

Bright spot: Jesse Kriel scores against the Stormers this season (Getty Images)

The Bulls used to be one of the most feared teams in Super Rugby as far as physicality was concerned. In the early-2000s, they took their game further, using their powerful forwards and pinpoint kicking game to create opportunities for backs like Bryan Habana.

While many maintained their perceptions about a ‘limited’ and ‘conservative’ Bulls team, the statistics told a different story. The Bulls scored the most tries in 2007, the most points in 2009 and the most points and tries in 2010. They stayed true to their physical identity, but certainly weren’t limited by it.

The Bulls side that’s been on show over the past few seasons has lacked a sense of identity. Their defence has been particularly poor (see sidebar) and for all the hype, their attack has ranged from mediocre to dire if tries and points are the measurement. These defensive and attacking failures can be linked to the decline of their physical approach as well as the tactical kicking inaccuracies. Until they recruit the right players and implement the right structures and game plan, they will continue to languish in the bottom half of the Super Rugby table.

Super Rugby Bulls Bulls and their fallen empire in recent seasons

Transformation is yet another area that requires dramatic improvement. All six of South Africa’s franchises will be expected to field teams that are 50% black in 2019. It will be a big ask for teams like the Bulls and the Lions, who have been the worst performers in this department since the Strategic Transformation Plan was introduced in late 2014.

The Bulls backed just four players of colour to start more than five games in 2018 – four fewer than the Cheetahs, Sharks and Stormers and two fewer than the Lions. The recruitment and development of promising black players must be viewed as a priority, sooner rather than later. There will always be those who blame poor results on the drive to meet these targets. However, the Bulls finished last in the South African conference despite being the least transformed side.

It was hoped that Mitchell would usher in a new era when he arrived in late-2017. His comments about the state of the franchise, however, confirmed that the problems cannot be fixed overnight.

It remains to be seen whether Zondagh can address the issues around recruitment and development, and whether Human – who was never the first choice as coach – can get the Super Rugby side back on the right tactical path. Indeed, it remains to be seen who will coach the side in 2020, and whether we will be having the same conversation again in a year’s time. Until that is decided, all talk of a revival and a realistic title assault is premature.

This article first appeared in the February 2019 issue of SA Rugby magazine.

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