Saturday’s 31-16 loss at the hands of the Sharks in Durban was a far cry from the start to this year’s Super Rugby competition the Bulls were looking for.
The men from Pretoria looked out of sorts and many a time out of sync with themselves and the pace of the game.
They seemed one or two steps behind the Sharks, who did everything at full tilt and at times threatened to inflict a heavier defeat on their rivals.
And even when the Bulls conjured up some fight towards the end of the game, their biggest weakness on the night, their handling, came back to haunt them and led to the Sharks grabbing a bonus point try in the dying seconds of the match.
And true to all the pre-match talk about the Sharks being the favourites, Jake White’s men played with purpose and executed with the precision of title contenders.
The Bulls, on the other hand, weren’t as bad as many had thought they would be and when they did manage to retain possession, they showed glimpses of how dangerous they can be.
The Bulls, at times, mauled with the same patience and directness of their predecessors who won the competition in 2007, 2009 and 2010.
The men in blue did not shy away from the collision even though most of the time it was never going to be a fair contest with some of the Sharks’ wrecking balls – Bismarck du Plessis, Willem Alberts and Pieter-Steph du Toit – having a weight advantage.
But coach Frans Ludeke believes his side could have snatched a win at the Shark Tank.
“We had a few golden opportunities in that first-half, but we only managed to come away with nine points. We could have gotten a grip of the game had we taken advantage of our position when we were in the right places.
“Those handling errors were one of the reasons we couldn’t get any momentum. We came so close, but we kept coughing up the ball and the conditions didn’t help either,” said Ludeke referring to the humid conditions which made the ball slippery and difficult to handle.
The Bulls suffered the most at the breakdown with Sharks flank Marcel Coetzee being handed the freedom of Kings Park, and this was not because the Bulls didn’t have a fetcher in their team, but due to the slow reaction speed of all of their players in competing for possession.
In a time when fetchers are rare and, when present, are being nullified by the sheer numbers opposition teams commit to the ruck, Ludeke will need to ensure that his team gets to grips with making their presence felt at the rucks ahead of their encounter with the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein on Friday night.
“The breakdown wasn’t good enough and our reaction speed was slow.
“Marcel was good in that area and stole some vital ball from us.
“It is a team thing, a small thing and one of the things about playing, you will get better in such areas. It is a vital area of the game and we would like to sort it out soon,” Ludeke said.
The Bulls will look at Saturday’s defeat as a painful lesson, but one that is best served up at the beginning of the season and one they can certainly build on and get better from.
It was a timely wake-up call ahead of another demanding derby against a Cheetahs team that is probably still in shock after their 21-20 defeat at the hands of the Lions. - The Star