Pretoria – A year ago, the Bulls started their Super Rugby campaign with nine debutants in the match-day 22, and the odds heavily stacked against them, to rekindle their successes of the 2009 and 2010 seasons.
Fast forward to 2013, and the team has a far more settled look with only two players earning their first caps for the Pretoria-based franchise's opening match.
As their season progressed, the class of 2012 proved to be the surprise of the campaign as they reached the playoffs of the competition, missing out on a semi-final spot.
They have since seen a changing of the guard in terms of their management, following the exodus of a number of their coaching staff.
“When you have new personnel a lot will change. It is not to say the one is better than the other, it is just different,” said Bulls captain Pierre Spies.
“It was fresh, it was new, the players responded well to that.”
The Bulls had for years been at the forefront of innovation in the game, and have taken a different approach to their pre-season training.
More focus has been placed on conditioning, to ensure the players are battle-hardened for a long Super Rugby season.
“We focused a lot on movement and explosive power to get across the field quite quickly,” Spies said.
“Conditioning-wise, we had a lot more collision conditioning in training sessions, which created that tough environment we always want.”
Former Bulls stalwart Victor Matfield has been named forwards and attack coach and he will have his baptism of fire in this year's competition in a mentoring role.
Matfield led the Bulls to two Super Rugby titles, and his experience in producing the goods will be invaluable.
The Bulls have always been blessed with exceptional depth and their wealth of experience, combined with the talented crop of youngsters coming through, could make them a formidable team this year.
The prospect of fielding up-and-coming stars such as centre Jan Serfontein, Arno Botha and Handre Pollard, if they get the opportunity, is a mouth-watering one.
They have been further strengthened with the addition of Lionel Mapoe, Callie Visagie and Grant Hattingh.
The Pretoria-based side are spoiled for choice in the midfield, with Francois Venter, JJ Engelbrecht, Serfontein and Wynand Olivier in the mix.
Their settled combinations make them the envy of many of the Super Rugby sides, with the leading South African points scorer, Morne Steyn, and Francois Hougaard making up the halfback pairing.
In the engine room, Juandre Kruger and Flip van der Merwe make a formidable second-row combination.
While the three-time Super Rugby champions came close to reaching the final last year, Bulls mentor Frans Ludeke felt they had learned some hard lessons, particularly with their management of players.
“Something we took from last season is to rotate players better. The timing is always a vital thing, and you don't want to break a rhythm or a combination,” Ludeke said.
“If you take it week by week the individuals will show you when they need a break. It is hard to call it now; you would like to give the players who start the confidence.”
Last year was also the first time there was a break in the Super Rugby competition to accommodate the June internationals, and Ludeke said they needed to manage the break better.
“After those internationals, we could have been smarter in the way we used our players as they came out of a tough international season.
“It was almost 21 players involved in that campaign. When we get to that bridge, hopefully we can make some smart calls.”
The Bulls host the Stormers in their first match of the Super Rugby season at Loftus Versfeld on Friday evening. – Sapa