Ahead of the 2018 season we take a closer look at each of the 15 teams participating in this year’s tournament. Next up, the Bulls.
Having finished 15th overall in the standings and endured possibly their worst season in their Super Rugby history, what a fall from grace for the the three-time champions (2007, 2009 and 2010) it has been.
But Bulls supporters will be cautiously optimistic following the appointment of former All Blacks coach John Mitchell and hoping the dark days that coincided with Nollis Marais’ tenure are over.
Mitchell has vowed to get the side back to playing an aggressive, winning, attractive style of rugby and increase the tempo at which they play.
Last year: Having always prided themselves on their scrum, the Bulls will be dismayed to know that they had the third lowest scrum success rate in the competition.
Also, the men from Pretoria scored the fourth lowest amount of tries of any team in the competition. Meanwhile, Loftus’ reputation as a fortress was dispelled as myth when the Crusaders smashed them 62-14 at the once-feared venue, running in ten tries.
What would have shocked the Bulls faithful the most were the chastening defeats to minnows Sunwolves and Kings, teams they really should be beating without issue.
Losses to the Stormers, Cheetahs, Sunwolves, Blues, Chiefs, Crusaders, Highlanders, Lions, Hurricanes, Kings were punctuated by wins against the Sunwolves, Jaguares, Cheetahs and Sharks.
On a positive side, the emergence of Warrick Gelant as a potent attacking weapon is a major plus for the men in Blue.
This year: The fixture list has not exactly favoured the odds of Mitchell’s tenure getting off to a good start with his side destined to face the two teams that competed in the 2016 final first up as the Bulls welcome the Hurricanes followed by the Lions to Loftus.
Next, Mitchell’s side face tough away fixtures against the Reds, Chiefs and defending champions Crusaders before heading back home to host the Stormers.
A fortnight later, they make the short trip to Durban to face Robert du Preez’s Sharks. Then it is back on home territory once again to entertain the Rebels and Highlanders.
Newlands awaits against the Stormers before they host the Sharks and then the Brumbies at Loftus. They close the competition off with away trips to the Sunwolves and Lions either side of a home tie with the Jaguares.
Key players: Warrick Gelant is one of the most exciting backline talents to emerge in South Africa for some while. The George-born 22-year-old scored a bucketload of tries for the Bulls last season, including some scintillating hat-tricks. Gelant was rewarded with a long-overdue call-up to the Springbok squad for the November internationals in which he made two appearances and scored a try.
The Bulls will be desperate to see Handre Pollard continue the upward trajectory he has been on since returning from long-standing injury troubles.
There is no doubting his talent and the 23-year-old has shown glimpses of his immense potential since his comeback. Hopefully he will gain confidence from having usurped Elton Jantjies as the first-choice Bok fly-half.
Players to watch: Keep an eye on Hanro Liebenberg, the man who was handed the armband last season at the tender age of 21, testament to how highly regarded the number eight is in the Bulls setup. Liebenberg is deceptively quick despite his massive 110kg frame and chips in with crucial tries. An industrious player, he makes plenty of tackles and carries.
Jamba Ulengo, the flanker converted to a wing, possesses Jonah Lomu like qualities. If only he can rekindle the sparkling form that saw him break in to the Springbok setup in 2016. Ulengo possesses plenty of pace and power and is good under the high ball, too. 28 now, he will want to vindicate all the hype surrounding him when he broke on to the scene was not a flash in the pan.
Prospects: We expect the Bulls to improve under Mitchell’s watch but that won’t be enough to prevent them from finishing fourth in the South African conference below the Lions, Sharks and Stormers and above the Jaguares. Unfortunately, they don’t have enough depth in their squad and with injuries so much more prevalent these days, that will be a concern as the season draws on.
Players in: Tim Agaba (SA Sevens), Marnitz Boshoff (Connacht), Thembelani Bholi (Kings), Dayan van der Westhuizen (Kings), Frans van Wyk (Stormers), Jano Venter (Lions)
Players out: Jacobie Adriaanse (Lions), Arno Botha (London Irish), Renaldo Bothma (Harlequins), Martin Dryer (Kings), Kefentse Mahlo (released), Sibahle Maxwane (Cheetahs), Luther Obi (Cheetahs), Rudy Paige (dropped), Jacques Potgieter (sabbatical), Marnus Schoeman (Lions), Tian Schoeman (Bordeaux), Jan Serfontein (Montpellier), Piet van Zyl (London Irish)
Saturday, February 24 v Hurricanes (Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria)
Saturday, March 3 v Lions (Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria)
Saturday, March 10 v Reds (Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane)
Saturday, March 16 v Chiefs (Waikato Stadium, Hamilton)
Saturday, March 23 v Crusaders (ANZ Stadium, Christchurch)
Saturday, March 31 v Stormers (Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria)
Saturday, April 14 v Sharks (King’s Park, Durban)
Saturday, April 21 v Rebels (Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria)
Saturday, April 28 v Highlanders (Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria)
Saturday, May 5 v Stormers (Newlands, Cape Town)
Saturday, May 12 v Sharks (Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria)
Saturday, May 19 v Jaguares (Estadio Jose Amalfitani, Buenos Aires)
Saturday, May 26 v Brumbies (Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria)
Saturday, June 30 v Sunwolves (Singapore Stadium, Kallang)
Saturday, July 7 v Jaguares (Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria)
Saturday, July 14 v Lions (Eliis Park, Johannesburg)