Bulls showing signs of inevitable decline

There comes a time when a coach has to accept his fate. This week Lions coach John Mitchell said: “Realistically, we are about seven points behind the other teams in the tournament.” At the same time he was happier in the wake of a 33-19 defeat against the Stormers than he has been in narrower losses and more impressive team displays this season.

Successive coaches of the Lions Loffie Eloff and Dick Muir—became used to giving the “three-year plan” speech after defeats and, after some early season optimism, Mitchell has adopted the same resigned outlook. The question is whether Mitchell’s counterpart at the Bulls, Frans Ludeke, can bring himself to admit that the good times are over on the other side of the Jukskei.

The defending Super Rugby champions have slipped to eighth in the log and the edges are visibly fraying.

Much as they put together some impressive passages of play against the Reds in Brisbane last week, the overall picture was bleak. It was epitomised by an error from fullback Zane Kirchner, who was tackled in his own goal area.

From the resultant five-metre scrum the Reds created an overlap to score in the right-hand corner. It was the kind of try that is supposed to be impossible to score at this level. First phase ball, with all the forwards committed to the set piece, should not allow an overlap of any kind. Yet it did.

It speaks of many things, but chief among them is desire. Three trophies in four years have wrought a change in the Bulls’ senior players. They have been there, done that and have nothing left to prove. When the 2012 season starts retirements and migration will render the Bulls unrecognisable. Sadly, for coach Ludeke, they already are.

There are exceptions to every rule and the one obvious one for the Bulls is Bjorn Basson.
This time last year Basson was part of the losing culture at the Cheetahs, but his quality shone through in a record-breaking Currie Cup season with Griquas.

Wisely, the Bulls signed him and on Saturday Basson’s second try—a leaping catch from restart ball and deft sprint to the line—was testament not just to the man’s talent but to an enduring desire to prove himself.

The Springbok coach needs to take note of this: it is not just that Bryan Habana is out of form, it is more that Basson is now where the Stormers man was four years ago.

It is the job of the selectors to ignore reputation and pick on form. It is the job of the agent to remind the coach that form is temporary, class is permanent. Somewhere in between is the correct road to travel and the good coach will have a feeling in his gut about which way is right.

This week Sharks coach John Plumtree welcomes back Pat Lambie. The star flyhalf broke a finger against the Crusaders at Twickenham and, in his absence the far more prosaic talent of Jacques-Louis Potgieter has worn the number 10 jersey for the Sharks. Lambie may start or come off the bench, but whichever way it happens Plumtree will have a handle on what the gifted youngster brings to the side.

Last year the 19-year-old Lambie made his bow at fullback. Injury pushed him to centre and by the end of the season he was winning man of the match in the Currie Cup final at flyhalf. The closer he got to the action, the better he got. It is no coincidence that the Sharks’ Super Rugby season went into decline when Lambie got injured.

True SA challenge
Plumtree will be the first to recognise an important point, however, which is that you build your house on sand if you put all your trust in 20-year-olds. Plumtree’s pal Mitchell can quote chapter and verse on this, for the Lions have two of the best 20-year-olds in the business: Elton Jantjies and Jaco Taute.

What has happened to the pair is instructive: as long as they were merely promising youngsters enjoying a run in the big league, they were fine. But there came a point when Mitchell was forced to rely on them as the finished article and that proved to be the tipping point.

As rockstar Lou Reed pointed out: growing up in public can be painful.

So, now that Lambie is returning from the first serious injury of his provincial career it would be politic not to rely on him to wreak miracles.

This week’s visitors are the Hurricanes, one of the competition’s basement dwellers.

Whether or not Lambie has a blinder upon his return the Sharks should be too good. It should be the perfect start to the second half of the competition for the Durban side and it now looks likely that they, with the Stormers, will provide the true South African challenge for honours.

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