Just four unbeaten teams out of 15 after two rounds, one of which had a bye last week, suggests that we are in for a closely fought league season in Super Rugby. And the way things stand at the moment, with three South African sides in the top six, there is no reason to believe it will be a barren year on the local front. And yet …
The Bulls and Lions have lost both their games and lie at the bottom of the log, separated by the Blues. The Lions were last year’s good news story, but have entered the new year looking like yesterday’s fish and chips wrapping paper. The Bulls won all their games at Loftus in 2014 but, with the Sharks being this week’s opponents in Pretoria, there must be a chance that the blue machine will begin 2015 with three straight defeats at the former fortress.
Already the rumblings have begun, with many taking pot shots at coach Frans Ludeke. Entering his eighth season in charge of the Bulls, Ludeke recently signed a contract to keep him at Loftus through 2016. The Bulls union invests much faith in continuity. Ludeke was recommended for the post by his predecessor, Heyneke Meyer, whose eighth and final season in charge coincided with the first of three Super Rugby titles for the franchise.
But there comes a time when even the best have to concede that there is nothing new to add – the lemon has been sucked dry. If results do not improve in the short term, the Bulls will have to put a succession plan in place for Ludeke’s position. That plan will almost inevitably involve Victor Matfield.
The World Cup winning lock will be 38 in May and will retire before the 2016 season. In 2012 and 2013, Matfield was part of the Bulls’ coaching team, and remains so in the second season of his remarkable comeback. He is the only member of the current playing squad who can remember what it is like to play under anyone other than Ludeke and Meyer.
In 1999 and 2000, Matfield played Super Rugby for the Cats under André Markgraaff. Eugene van Wyk, the coach of the Bulls at that stage, allowed Matfield to go on loan to Griquas to play in the Currie Cup for the same two seasons, a decision that seemed odd then and preposterous with the benefit of hindsight.
And so, with his stalking horse wearing a playing jersey, Ludeke finds himself under immense pressure. Few now will come to the coach’s defence with tales of Super Rugby titles in 2008 and 2010. They will want to know why a franchise with a hugely talented squad of players and a benign draw cannot win a game.
It might have been so different. The Bulls were well beaten by the Stormers in their opening encounter, but they should have prevailed against the Hurricanes last week. First, they were guilty of dereliction of duty in allowing Julian Savea to score from a tap penalty five metres out. Then replacement lock Grant Hattingh put a fingertip on the whitewash in the dying moments to cancel out what would have been the match-winning try.
For once in the heat of battle it was possible to blame the coaching team; Savea slithered to the line beneath three missed tackles, while Hattingh had the ball under the wrong arm. These are the basics of the game. In their great years, the Bulls bulldozed the opposition; in 2015, they have missed 42 tackles in 160 minutes of play.
Not just another day at the office
Hattingh’s effort might be excused as a heat-of-the-moment error, but correct technique should be inculcated as second nature on the training field. If it is not, there is something wrong. Most professional sides train twice a day during the week. It is the job of the coaching staff to stop those sessions becoming just another day at the office.
The nature of sport, of course, dictates that all will be forgiven if the Bulls beat the Sharks on Saturday. History is on their side: they have won seven of the past 10 meetings and hold an overall record of won 13, drew two, lost nine – the best against the Sharks among the South African franchises. The Sharks last won in Pretoria in 2011.
But a typical Loftus duel between these sides is settled by less than the margin of a bonus point, which means that this week’s clash should be too close to call. The Sharks found their mojo against the Lions on a sodden Kings Park field last week. The return of Bismarck du Plessis had a galvanising effect on the pack in general and on his elder brother in particular.
The connoisseurs will relish the match up between the two current Springbok flyhalves, Pat Lambie and Handré Pollard. Lambie played a perfect wet weather game in Durban, while Pollard stood out amid the general mediocrity of his Bulls colleagues against the Hurricanes.
South African rugby can drift along for decades without a genuine choice for the national selectors at pivot, so it should be stressed that these are good times – unless you happen to be the coach of a losing side, that is.