Loftus hangover - the five headaches
While many are still focused on Vodacom Bulls captain Dewald Potgieter’s decision to shun three kickable penalties as the prime reason for the Bulls' loss this past weekend, here are some other points to ponder when considering what factors denied the Bulls a shot at the Super Rugby title.
It may be unfair to look at things in retrospect, but while the Bulls did unbelievably well to get to the semifinals, some key elements were ultimately the reason for their downfall.
1. The loss of Juandre Kruger
The loss of the Bok jumper was felt the moment he stepped onto the plane to head for France, and if information is to be believed, could well have been prevented if it wasn’t for the Bulls hierarchy’s stubborn outlook on the matter. Kruger leaving the Bulls robbed them of their best attacking weapon – the lineout. While Grant Hattingh did a decent job in filling the gap, the Bulls no longer had a defensive lineout weapon to terrorise other teams and this contributed to their downfall.
Those precise penalties that Potgieter sent to the corner to set up the lineout drive would have been easy pickings for Kruger, who is currently without peer in South Africa as we have a desperate shortage of No 5 locks. Once again one has to ask the question: who allowed his contract to finish in June, and why was no extension for the playoffs negotiated until it was almost too late to do so?
2. Underestimating the weakness of the scrum
You don’t have to go back too far to remember Bulls packs that demolished opposition, but the current crop of players certainly don’t fit into the same mould. The scrum problems have been hovering ever since week four of the competition, where six scrum penalties were conceded in Canberra against the Brumbies. The Bulls have soldiered on, and papered over the cracks well, but considering their front row is made up of Springboks with over 50 Super Rugby games each, it certainly isn’t what you would expect from this calibre of players.
The hard truth about it is that the Bulls have relied on ball-carriers over scrum experts. The Brumbies took nine points on the day and with all the comment on their binding that wasn’t penalised, the Bulls haven’t exactly been on the right side of the law all season. Last year they were the team in Super Rugby that gave away the most scrum penalties; this year it was a little better but not significantly so, and it provided opposition with the perfect attacking platform.
3. Exodus of players
While the Bulls have repeatedly said they have lost players because of the lure of the Euro and Yen, a number of the players have said they wanted to stay, but that the negotiations were made difficult by the Bulls' insistence on cutting salaries. In some cases – including Morne Steyn, Wynand Olivier – there was to be a natural exodus of players this year, but in others – such as Jano Vermaak and Dewald Potgieter – the Bulls' initial offer was half of the players’ current salaries, not only starting negotiations off in a bad light but also making it increasingly difficult to establish bona fides in the negotiations. No wonder overseas clubs snapped up the players with ease!
The talk around the exodus of so many players did play a role in the Bulls' season. The same problem has plagued them in recruiting as the Bulls’ internal negotiating skills have filtered through to other players in Springbok colours and could well have played a part in the likes of Pieter-Steph Du Toit and Willem Alberts turning them down.
4. Key injuries
While he may not be everyone’s favourite player, the loss of Pierre Spies through injury was a blow, especially when coupled with Arno Botha’s injury at the Boks. Both played an integral part in the way the Bulls played this season, and it is doubtful if Spies would not have taken the penalties on offer. While the Bulls were relatively untouched at the beginning of the competition, some key injuries towards the end certainly played a part in this marathon tournament.
5. What happened to Hougi?
Francois Hougaard was one of the Bulls' best attacking weapons in the past, but a niggling ankle injury has been the biggest setback for the Bok halfback this year. Hougaard was benched for the game against the Crusaders when he was clearly injured, then returned home and struggled to regain his fitness. The decision to choose him ahead of the in-form Jano Vermaak puzzled many and Hougaard didn’t have one of his best games with the boot or in defence. Still a classy player, but clearly struggling.
A successful season?
Considering they were three minutes away from winning a semifinal, the Bulls will look back and say the season was a success. And considering the factors above, they did really well to get to where they did, considering the survival aspect of the competition.
But with another rebuilding phase and a young team looking ahead, the future will be tough. And the Bulls will still be kicking themselves for losing on Saturday night.