Brenden Nel – SuperSport
Cape Town – Vodacom Bulls coach Nollis Marais faces one of his toughest tests of his career as his side prepares to face the Chiefs in Hamilton in their Vodacom Super Rugby clash on Saturday.
Accoridng to the supersport.com website, after their horrific 38-14 loss to the Blues in Albany on Saturday, Marais will need to find answers to what has happened to his side’s attacking game as well as their defence during a season that promised so much but has quickly turned into a nightmare for the Pretoria side.
Saddled with a horror draw – only one of their first six games was at the comfort of Loftus Versfeld – the Bulls now face one of the most talented sides in the competition this weekend knowing the hole they have dug for themselves is getting deeper by the minute.
After a promising pre-season – which included a big victory over the Chiefs in Brisbane – the Bulls looked set to build on their performance of last year and included several top players in their ranks, with others returning from long-term injury to have an impressive roster on paper, but one that has until now failed to perform on the field.
A patchy win over the Sunwolves at home – which was far too close for comfort – is all they have to show for their efforts so far as both attack and defence have massive question marks about it with early season expectations now a distant reality and a fight for survival on the cards.
And what was most concerning is not that the Bulls don’t make their own chances, it is that both their skills levels and execution have been so poor to this point in the competition that they have literally been their own worst enemies.
Two things have stood out for the Bulls in this year’s competition – a desire to play a more attacking brand of rugby and their consistent talk of fixing their own “problems” when things go wrong.
But as Saturday’s game showed, things have actually regressed, with players running into each other as running lines got blurred, and some of the poorer attacking options and handling skills letting them down when they did get it right.
To illustrate the point of Saturday’s problems, fullback Warrick Gelant made a miserable 12 metres on attack during the Blues game, Springbok centre Jan Serfontein could only manage 1. In fact Handre Pollard’s 28 metres was the most of any backline player, while five of the Blues backline and two of their forwards easily bettered that stat with lock Patrick Tuipulotu making 47 on his own, wing Melani Nanai 117 for his efforts.
It’s difficult to pinpoint where exactly the problems are at the moment, but it is hard not to argue that somehow it comes down to coaching. When international players overrun, or run in each others’ channels, it often means they are uncertain of their roles and where they need to be on attack. Once can be excused, but on Saturday it happened more than once and highlighted how low in confidence the Bulls’ attacking game is at the moment.
And then there was the defence. Marais admitted he was concerned about the defence after it leaked six tries against a Blues side – five in the second half as the Bulls were blown off the park in the last 40.
Match statistics point to 24 missed tackles in the Bulls defence – but it wasn’t so much the number as the attitude in defence, with the gang-tackle tactic backfiring on the team as players were unable to reset their lines against a quick Blues attack that exploited them too easily.
Some of the tackling was exceptionally poor and lacked commitment, and often was the reason why the Blues made so many metres.
With 124 tackles made, lock Lood de Jager and loose forward Ruan Steenkamp both stood out in their play and should be commended for their efforts. In all six players made 10 tackles or more, underlining just how on the back foot they were.
Marais has some tough questions to answer this week and some tough decisions to make that will determine his team’s hopes for the rest of the season.
The first start could be to get the selection right, as the loose trio continues to lack balance while halfback Piet van Zyl’s tactical kicking and work from the base was poor on the night.
Either way for all the talk of fixing their own problems – which started after the loss against the Stormers in Cape Town – the Bulls need to walk that talk now, or face a hiding in Hamilton.