Empty seats at Loftus during last weekend’s Super Rugby match between the Bulls and Highlanders. Picture: BackpagePix
Empty seats at Loftus during last weekend’s Super Rugby match between the Bulls and Highlanders. Picture: BackpagePix
Nollis Marais, coach of Blue Bulls, at a recent press conference prior to a Super Rugby game at Loftus. Picture: BackpagePix
Nollis Marais, coach of Blue Bulls, at a recent press conference prior to a Super Rugby game at Loftus. Picture: BackpagePix
THE thousands of empty seats at Loftus Versfeld and lack of interest in the Bulls Super Rugby campaign tell a sad and sorry tale of the once-mighty sporting giants of the southern hemisphere.

Seven years ago and with two Super Rugby trophies in the cabinet, it was near impossible to get a ticket for a Bulls match in Super Rugby, let alone keep up with the score during games as the men in blue often ran riot against any visiting team.

Nowadays, the silence at Loftus is deafening and the Bulls can no longer call their home a fortress. Rather, it is becoming a graveyard where calves are being buried long before they can grow horns big enough for them to be counted as formidable Bulls.

It has taken 10 matches this year for the once-proud and mighty franchise to fall down to its knees as they count the effects of their three wins and seven losses this season.

So poor have the Bulls been this year that they reached a new low in their Super Rugby history, and without forgetting the disastrous 2002 season where they lost every game in the competition. It was unthinkable that they would become the first South African team to lose to the Sunwolves and, a few weeks later, lose by the biggest margin and concede the most points at home to the Crusaders.

But what has gone wrong at Loftus Versfeld?

There are a multitude of reasons as to why the Bulls find themselves at the bottom of rugby’s food chain and being the vulnerable prey that they once hunted with ease during their glory days.

It is not so long ago that the team led by Victor Matfield was unbeatable at home and marched on to win three titles in four years in 2007, 2009 and 2010.

The difference between that team and the current one under the tutelage of Nollis Marais is obviously the fitness and experience of the players.

It has become clear for all to see that the Bulls are, by far, not the fittest team in the competition. With an average age of 22 years, there is little or no experience to compete with the best teams in the competition.

The lack of experience at Super Rugby level is not only among the playing personnel. It also pervades the management and backroom staff. Defence coach Pine Pienaar is the only member of the management team who has been involved with Super Rugby prior to Marais taking the reins at the beginning of last year.

The Blue Bulls Company board of directors must shoulder some of the blame for having appointed Marais and left him out to dry without the essential coaching staff to support him through the difficulty of Super Rugby. There have also been some shocking decisions made by high performance manager Xander Janse van Rensburg that have added to the crisis.

All that he had to do when he stepped into the job five years ago was to follow the same blueprint that his predecessor, Ian Schwartz, brought to fruition.

It was a simple but effective formula that brought on the most successful period in Bulls history domestically and internationally. It produced world-class players like Matfield, Fourie du Preez, Bakkies Botha, Gary Botha, Morne Steyn, Bryan Habana, Danie Rossouw, Akona Ndungane and so on.

It was all about assembling the best coaches and players from junior rugby to the top and ensuring that there is a steady and consistent supply of players in the pipeline available at all times.

There was a concerted focus to ensure that then coach Heyneke Meyer was surrounded by some of the best management staff money could buy. In breaking away from tradition, there was a coach for every facet and department of play on the field.

Add to that, the Bulls only recruited the best junior players in the land ensuring that they had unparalleled depth that would keep them going for years.

Janse van Rensburg has all but thrown that blueprint out of the window and in cowboy-style management, threw out all the experienced management and backroom staff in the clean-out that followed the axing of Frans Ludeke two years ago.

With that, Janse van Rensburg relieved many of the experienced players of positions, preferring to buy players from the outside, many of whom lacked the pedigree of becoming world class internationals.

Marais must also shoulder the blame for the way the team have performed this year as he backed many out-of-form players who have become passengers in a side that had a relatively good breakout season last year.

The inability of Marais to play his strongest and best team from the beginning of the season has come back to haunt him, while his reluctance to be his own man has been a weakness that many of the players have exploited. Loftus is an empty place with no soul and no character and the Bulls have succumbed to the ills of professional rugby where the individual seemingly comes before the team.

There is no team culture, in fact there is no team to speak of. There's just a gathering of players parading in blue jerseys eager to collect their bloated wages at the end of the month but not willing to give their pound of flesh in making the Bulls great again.

The thousands of empty blue seats at Loftus signal that the time has come for change and it must happen now.

If the glory days are to return to Loftus with the turnstiles turning endlessly, the deafening noise of the cheering thousands sounding like a victory chant and players being feted in the same manner as war time army generals, then there must be a major clean-up and shake up in the office and on the field.

There were signs of a turnaround on the field in the 17-10 defeat against the Highlanders last Saturday, but there need to be wins and many of them for things to really turn for Marais and his team.

The Bulls need to appoint a director of rugby and a big name at that.

If Meyer is the only man to turn things around, then Meyer it must be but it needs to be with a well-travelled and respected person who has the glittering achievements that the Bulls so desperately desire.

But the most important thing is that the Bulls need their soul back. It is that passion and pride for the simple game of rugby that made them the most feared, respected, loved and hated union and franchise in South Africa and beyond.

The solutions are there.

Are those in power at Loftus willing to make those difficult decisions or is this the beginning of the end of what was once a mighty and proud team?