Senior rugby writer Brenden Nel takes a look at what faces the Bulls after an underwhelming campaign for the SA giants...
The thumping loss at the hands of the Toyota Cheetahs in the Currie Cup on Saturday ended a long and disappointing season for Jake White’s Vodacom Bulls and also raised several questions about the road ahead.
While there is no question White will lead them into the next season and has been given the green light by the Bulls board to up the recruitment of players to get the Bulls to win trophies again, the way the team has navigated the current season has raised concerns.
The Bulls have - over the past two seasons - been the only major franchise who have targeted Currie Cup glory and have routinely played the majority of their Vodacom United Rugby Championship players in the domestic competition.
While there is an argument that doing so raises the bar in the Currie Cup, after a long and tiring season where teams have added the Heineken Champions’ Cup to their agenda, the Bulls decision needed to result in a trophy, or it would be seen as a failure.
DISAPPOINTING WIN RATIO
Overall the season’s figures don’t read well when taking into account the three competitions the Bulls have played in. If you look across the competitions, the Bulls end with a season stat of played 38, won 19, lost 19.
While the Bulls will point to the fact they made the quarterfinals of the URC, qualified for next season’s Heineken Champions’ Cup and made the semifinals of the Currie Cup, when considering the side they played in the three competitions, their fans and shareholders will not be happy with the return.
There have also been several talking points for the season which have impacted the Bulls form and their prospects which will need to be addressed ahead of the next season which starts in September.
The team lost their defence coach Joey Mongalo early in the season when White released him to take up a coaching position at the Sharks. While Mongalo has grown in stature and established himself as one of the rising stars of SA rugby’s coaching structures, the Bulls have suffered without a defensive coach, and lost several URC games by one score or less where their defence has been found wanting. White took on the role himself along with Pine Pienaar with limited success.
The disappearance of S’bu Nkosi and his subsequent return to deal with mental health issues has also taken a toll. While it has been widely reported that Nkosi and White have not seen eye to eye for a while now, the Springbok winger is reportedly looking for a new club and his future at the Bulls looks to be over.
The Bulls were sympathetic to Nkosi’s plight in the beginning but now seem to have changed their minds after Nkosi took more time off than was allowed and has played only a handful of matches for them since returning.
The disastrous start to the Currie Cup season which saw the Bulls smashed by the Airlink Pumas by 60 points in their opening game and then lurch to a loss in Welkom against the Novavit Griffons saw the axing and demotion of Edgar Marutlulle as Currie Cup coach just four games into the season.
Marutlulle has bounced back well and coached the Blue Bulls under-19 team to the national title, but the optics around firing a young coach after four games were bad. White returned to take the coaching reigns at Currie Cup level as well.
OBSESSION WITH STORMERS
The over emphasis on derby games with the DHL Stormers has left the Bulls with a 6-0 loss ratio against John Dobson’s side, as well as two more losses in the Currie Cup has seen the Bulls become obsessed with beating their southern rivals, but to no avail. White’s decision to pack a Currie Cup side with URC players backfired when they lost badly to a young DHL WP side and Dobson admitted afterwards it only made the Stormers more confident when the teams met in the URC quarterfinal.
Part of the issues for White has been a number of the players he relied upon during the early part of his tenure have suddenly lost form. The attacking abilities of the team seem stunted and easy to read by opposition and on Saturday against the Cheetahs the team again struggled with their finishing, not being able to complete one of the six visits to the 22 in the first half.
While White has the backing of the board to try and recruit the team to a position where they can compete with the best in Europe, other than Wilco Louw, the players the team have signed for the upcoming season increase the side’s depth rather than fill them with superstars.
Jannes Kirsten, Sergeal Petersen, Jaco van der Walt and Henry Immelmann are all solid journeymen players, but none look to trouble the selectors going forward. Van der Walt is qualified for Scotland as well.
In either case, on paper the side that played in Bloemfontein was much better than the 39-6 hammering they received and has been underperforming all season long when it mattered.
But playing the first choice players in all three competitions has also stopped the depth in the province from being spread wider - as the Sharks and Stormers have done - and on Saturday the team looked tired and bereft of answers when things went wrong.
All that brings us back to the coaching structures, where there is a concern that the coaching structures leave too much responsibility in White’s hands alone.
The perfect example of this was when White was hospitalised with a stomach ailment in December and the side struggled without him at the helm.
The departure of three of the team’s coaches - forwards coach Russell Winter, breakdown coach Nollis Marais and Pienaar - will be an opportunity to strengthen the coaching team. Andries Bekker has been earmarked to take over the forwards role but it is unclear who the rest of the coaching side will be.
In the Currie Cup Gert Smal will depart the team as well, with it being unclear how successful his two years at the Bulls were. Smal kept a low profile and worked behind the scenes.
There is uncertainty about the future of Sean Everitt and Hugo van As - both who were involved in the Currie Cup campaign and both who are seen as close to White.
A defensive coach will need to be found. While the Bulls have already recruited NWU Pukke’s rising star Jean Tiedt as their junior defensive consultant, shoring up this department is a key element before the new season.
While there is certainly an argument against the chances of excelling in all three tournaments at the same time, it is understandable that the lofty goal would be one for the Pretoria side.
White may well get his way in terms of recruitment and is experienced enough to know what makes a good side tick. But it will require a more nuanced strategy, fresh ideas and a few personnel changes as well.
If the Bulls are to fulfill their own ambitions of being one of the URC’s top sides, while still gunning for the Currie Cup they will need a clear strategy that revolves more around their strengths than a game plan.
Their current centralised system has the danger of falling apart if White has another health scare or something similar. At the moment there is no assistant coach that can confidently lead the team forward if White leaves the job.
And that should be a concern. More challenging voices are needed, and a clear strategy going forward that will empower young players with experience while keeping the top players fresh and motivated to perform.
The 2022/3 season was a disappointment for the Bulls. Steps need to be taken now to make sure the next season isn’t the same.