JOHANNESBURG - For a tour that began with so much hope, promise and a feeling of renewal for the Bulls, it never really lived up to expectation and has left more questions than answers.
This after the Bulls sunk to a 33-14 defeat at the hands of the Crusaders in Christchurch, in what was their fourth consecutive loss with the results mirroring last year’s ill-fated start to a dismal season.
While not the same comparison can be drawn with the manner in which the Bulls are playing the game and how some of the senior players are standing up, there will certainly be concern at how the men from Pretoria still struggle to land the killer blow.
But Bulls coach John Mitchell is adamant that they have made strides on the tour that began with a surprise defeat to the Queensland Reds before crossing the Tasman Sea for New Zealand where they were again their own worst enemy in the loss to the Chiefs in Hamilton last weekend.
Mitchell wants his team to take the lessons from the trip and apply it at home when they will enjoy playing most of the remainder of the season at Loftus Versfeld and within the confines of South Africa.
“Where we are now and where we want to get to, you obviously have to fill that gap that is noticeable. One in four will always get measured on results, but if you go one layer deeper than that there is definitely growth and we need to understand and learn quickly in this competition," Mitchell said.
"We go back home and now take learnings transfer to familiar environment. But I have been impressed with attitude and work ethic. It is about keeping frustration away from them that’s important when you grow and young. And I have to remain patient in their development as well."
And Mitchell knows that things could have been different had his side truly applied the lessons from their previous games in Christchurch.
The Bulls inability to make good of their dominance was glaringly obvious from them being unable to convert from three driving mauls within arm’s length of the Crusaders try-line.
Instead of getting something on the scoreboard out of their siege, it was the Crusaders who struck a psychological blow. First standing tall under attack and then the two successive maul turnovers that ultimately alleviated the pressure.
It was after those turnovers that the Crusaders came into their own and not only landed two blows with two tries in 12 minutes, but they played to the slippery and heavy underfoot conditions extremely well.
For the remainder of the game after Jack Goodhue scored his first of two tries in the 39th minute, the Bulls were always chasing the game and as hard as they tried they were never going to come anywhere close to the defending champions and the ruthlessness they showed every time they entered the Bulls red zone.
There was still signs of the Bulls ambition to play a running game with Springbok flyhalf Handre Pollard again putting in another big showing while wing Travis Ismaiel scored a brilliant individual try that will repeated the entire season in the competition’s highlight reel.
But part of the Bulls mistakes stemmed from being overambitious and perhaps some naivety as they ignored conditions on the day and foolishly played according to the script and not the situation.
“We had numerous opportunities to convert with the driving maul but we never got anything. And then we overplayed in the middle of the field considering the conditions and transferred pressure and we fed the best mauling team in the competition. We needed to get some conversion out of our driving maul,” said Mitchell.
“There were three areas we focussed on. Clearly the set-piece, getting the balance right between playing and kicking and we didn’t get that right on the evening which was a little bit naïve in that situation. You can’t fault the intent to play it’s just we have to learn to play without the ball and create the pressure on the other end.”