Bulls optimistic over future
Having been subjected to back-to-back player drains over the past two seasons, the Bulls are of the opinion that the worst is behind them now.
From a time when they dominated all and sundry, the three-time champions slumped to a ninth place finish in this year’s Super Rugby competition.
It marked the worst showing since Frans Ludeke first took charge of the side in 2008 – leaving the Bulls faithful wondering whether they would be able to turn it around as they did in 2009, when they went on to claim their second crown.
Reflecting on the season, Ludeke highlighted that, on average, they fielded nine players who were competing at Super Rugby level for the first time.
The coach also pointed out that they lost several key players to injury and that their inefficiencies at the breakdown were further exposed when specialist fetchers Deon Stegmann and Dewald Potgieter were rule out of action.
While impressive at home, the Bulls failed to replicate that form on the road and will be disgusted with themselves for suffering record losses to teams they used to walk over in years gone by.
Their losses to the Cheetahs and Lions stung the most as those sides have never been able to taste success against them.
A bruised Victor Matfield said after his team’s 40-7 victory over the Melbourne Rebels that, despite all factors that contributed to their poor season, they know they could have been in the play-offs, had they won one or two more matches.
More importantly though, Matfield spoke with confidence about the union’s future and said that the Bulls would be back to their best sooner than most people think.
While Ludeke indicated that they have plans in place to avoid further player departures, Matfield said that his job as a leader and coach will be to ensure the greater adjectives at Loftus Versfeld are understood by the next generation.
“The first thing for me is selling the dream of what we are trying to do here at the Bulls and that is why we sign guys like Jan Serforntein and Handre Pollard for the next two-three years,” said the Bulls skipper.
“And then the biggest thing for the most talented players is that they want to play for the Springboks so we must show them that their best chance of realising that dream is if they play here for the Bulls.
“It is all about creating that environment where they want to be and where they can eventually play for the Springboks.”
Ludeke noted that, from a managerial perspective, it would take new initiatives to ensure players do not jump ship at the first sign of a bigger pay cheque.
“We will also look at doing dual deals where the players can return after six months – with the Japan deals that is a possibility – but at the end of the day it is going to be tough to have a big squad with experienced players and it will make it tough to keep players,” Ludeke said.
“Hopefully the economy will also change because the lure of the huge money they get overseas is hard to counter. We do have plans to make sure that we can secure some players.”
For now, the Bulls will shift their focus to the Currie Cup and Ludeke said that success will only be achieved if they have a better understanding of where things went wrong during a topsy-turvy Super Rugby season.
Fortunately for Ludeke, he will not have to worry about the conundrum Francois Hougaard has created by his sublime performance on the wing.
The regular scrum-half played superbly out wide in their last outing and – as player who is in the national squad for his exploits at nine – could again be in a position where he finds himself with a the dreaded “utility back” status stuck to his name.
“The combination really worked well for us, Hougie (Hougaard) brings a lot of energy playing there,” Ludeke noted.
“He always looks for gaps and spaces and is alert on defence as well. He had a very good game tonight, but Piet (Van Zyl) also played very well and it is good to have two good halfbacks.”
“His first choice is scrum-half and he played there we tried to use the squad system, but Piet picked-up an injury on tour and was out for a few games, but only time will tell what we will do. We have two great scrum-halves and we need to keep both involved.
“Both players had satisfactory seasons.”
By Michael Mentz at Loftus Versfeld