PRETORIA – The burning question facing the Bulls is whether this past week has been enough time for them to turn around their 62-24 drubbing by the Crusaders into a win when they host the Highlanders at Loftus Versfeld today.
There can be no running away from the fact that the Bulls have hit their lowest ebb since coach Nollis Marais took over the reins last year, and that has been brought about by the bad start to the season which included a loss to the Sunwolves.
And last weekend’s record home defeat would have further exacerbated an already dire situation.
It is unheard of in the past decade that a Bulls team have only managed to win three out of their nine matches so far in the season. They are nowhere near playoff contention let alone fighting for top spot in their respective conference.
They have not hidden away their pain and embarrassment in the past week, and Marais has shown some guts in making some bold decisions in the hope they yield better results.
The team have been handed new leadership in the form of captain Hanro Liebenberg and vice-captain Burger Odendaal, and there have been significant changes in terms of the playing personnel.
A much more polished performance that has the hallmarks of a team desperate to return to Super Rugby’s top table is what they will be chasing.
There is no area of the game that the Bulls can boast to have mastered this season, especially last week, and it is with frailties all over the park that Liebenberg will have to lead his side into a resurgence that hopefully will bring back some pride and respect for the jersey they wear.
Once upon a time the Bulls were respected, but more than anything they were feared.
In Saturday’s match against a very capable Highlanders, they will need to begin that process of not only regaining their self-respect, but more importantly being feared for what they can do to opposition teams especially at fortress Loftus.
“I think it is a series of events that have led us to where we are at the moment. If you are winning, it’s fine, because you build on that confidence. If you start losing, then it is very difficult to get players out of that situation,” Marais said.
“If you take Saturday for instance, in the first 10 minutes we were on attack the whole time, and we should have converted three into seven points. But we didn’t do that. The Crusaders scored three easy tries, and then confidence becomes a problem because belief is a problem.
“They always say winning is a habit but so is losing, so to get the players out of that frame of mind is our focus.
“The players want to go out and prove everybody wrong and play for the pride of the union. We’re not talking about winning or losing; we are talking about passion and pride. The guys just want to get the Crusaders (disaster) behind them.”
Returning this once proud and great franchise back to its glory days, though, will take more than just a few changes and a new captain.
A return to basics by dominating the set-piece, keeping the defence watertight and making good of ball-in-hand will definitely be steps in the right direction.
But this will have to be done with great consideration and care against opponents who are smelling blood and can inflict the same, if not worse, damage than the Crusaders did last week.
“I think it will be very difficult to make the playoff spot now,” says Marais. “If the Stormers slip up, we might be able to. But I said to the guys the focus must be on the next game and the next step we have to take. The next step is the Highlanders.”