It was just under a year ago that I happened to be sitting at Trademarx, the restaurant next to the Vodacom Bulls’ training field and overheard a conversation.
It involved two of the young stars at the union, discussing their futures. One was loose forward Jean Cook and the other IRB under-20 Player of the year nominee Shaun Adendorff.
“I’m not happy,” Cook told Adendorff, “I’ve got an offer from the Cheetahs, and I think I’m going to take it.”
“I think I’ll come right with the Sevens team,” Adendorff answered, both looking distant and not in the best of spirits.
I decided not to approach them at that stage, as there was so much else going on. Several of the Bulls Springboks had already announced they were heading to clubs in Europe, while others were openly talking to me about the Bulls’ new policy of recruitment.
It was the same policy that saw players such as Dewald Potgieter, Jano Vermaak and Willie Wepener offered half their salaries to renew their contracts.
Now I don’t know anyone who would take a 50 per cent salary cut and then expect to stay loyal to the same employers that treated them so badly.
The Bulls were telling all who would listen they couldn’t afford to match the European and Japanese salaries, when in private they were simply making the decision very easy for the players to leave. You have to wonder why, especially as the likes of Potgieter, Vermaak and Wepener (not to mention Jacques Potgieter) were all still under contract until after the Currie Cup. All were released before the domestic competition started and, in retrospect, could have made a telling difference to that side, which missed out on making the semifinals of the competition.
All the time the Bulls were selling the tune that everyone was happy, nobody wanted to leave and that the exodus was made so by the falling rand, and players wanting to make a quick buck overseas.
Roll ahead to 2014.
With all that in mind, Adendorff now at the Sevens, Cook at Free State and a host of young players in this Bulls squad, the scene was set for their Super Rugby campaign.
The management, along with those who are responsible for contracting at the union, were now selling the line that “the next generation” needs to make the step up, they need to take over the mantle from those who have left.
Which is all good and well, until the injuries of Arno Botha and Pierre Spies came about.
Suddenly, after two opening losses in the competition the youth policy seems to have been abandoned, and now the Bulls look like they’re on a shopping spree second to none.
Already we’ve seen the signings of Wimpie van der Walt (on a short-term contract) and the return of Dewald Potgieter – never mind that the Bulls basically forced him to leave last season when he wanted to stay.
Then there have been the reports that the Bulls want to sign Juan Smith, the experienced Bok flank who is playing his rugby at Toulon after a two-year injury absence.
When I heard about Smith, I made a phone call to Xander Janse van Rensburg, who is the High Performance Manager at the Bulls, and asked about Smith.
“Yes, we’re interested in him,” he told me.
“But he’s 32?” was my answer
“But he’s playing the best rugby of his life, did you see his last game?” he fired back.
“But he’s 32?” I said again.
The point being that even if the Bulls signed Smith, he would have a maximum of a season at the union. He’s a short-term option. Whatever happened to backing the youth?
Some of the coaching staff tell me the youth policy has been shelved, that the Bulls “don’t believe in the youngsters anymore”. I certainly hope this isn’t true. Jacques du Plessis has been great in this year’s Super Rugby tournament.
The mixed messages coming out of the union are strange in themselves. Do they believe in the youth brigade or not? Are they backing their systems or not? Or is it an admission that the systems have failed and the young players are not up to it?
Was last year’s decision to let all that experience go a mistake? It certainly seems, by bringing back Potgieter, they’re at least partly admitting to it.
It’s all a far cry from the way things were done when the Bulls were on top of their game.
Back then, when Ian Schwartz was High Performance Manager, it was a rarity that any player wouldn’t be sewn up when the negotiating window of 1 June opened up. Schwartz, who is now Bok team manager, used to privately tell us that if the Bulls hadn’t signed a player by that time, they were content to let him go.
There were few exceptions, few players who left who actually went on to better things at other provinces. Adriaan Strauss is one. Bryan Habana – although it is debatable if his provincial career was better in Cape Town – was the other. In both cases the Bulls didn’t want the players to leave, and in both cases family members held sway over the decisions.
Since the change in management the Bulls have lost the likes of Cook, Adendorff and CJ Stander. They backed Louis Fouche over Marnitz Boshoff, they let the two Potgieters go (and look at the impact Jacques has made at the Waratahs).
Add that to the coaching decisions – to bring in Jacques-Louis Potgieter and leapfrog Handre Pollard and the continued backing of Callie Visagie over the talented Bongi Mbonambi and it is clear that some decisions are taken on the whim.
There is no clear and concise policy to recruiting anymore. Rash decisions are made and, in the long term, the team will pay the price. The edge the Bulls always had over other unions is gone.
Now they sit and try to rebuild while plastering cracks when backing their systems should be the way forward.
Don’t be surprised should this continue andyou hear of more young talent heading away from Loftus. The warning signs are there.
If only those who are in charge will see it.