Gary Boshoff, News 24 Columnist takes a closer look at the reasons behind the sudden improvement in the Bulls’ fortunes and believes the future remains bright for the Loftus franchise.
While the Super 14 isn’t won during March (to borrow a phrase from a well-known rugby personality), it most certainly can be lost during that same month. This is a fact that the Bulls, probably more than any other franchise, now realise after they clinched their third successive win on Saturday.
After a few narrow losses overseas, the Bulls returned home, battered and beaten. Some pundits, including this author, predicted a continued downhill trend for the team, especially after being brutalised by the Hurricanes at home.
However, notwithstanding the obvious demoralised state of the team, the Bulls managed to lift their game through genuine commitment from their senior Springboks, as well as a group of eager youngsters desperate to prove that they can play. In the past three weeks we’ve seen what the Bulls are really capable of, but more importantly, how critical a role senior players have at this level of competition. I therefore have some sympathy for Eugene Eloff when he points to a lack of experience as the Lions’ weakness in the Super 14.
Notwithstanding the lame excuses forwarded by the coach and management for the earlier poor performances of the Bulls, I am convinced that the real problem lay with senior players and the goings-on behind the scenes that were splashed out in newspaper headlines recently. When South Africa’s top rugby player (Bryan Habana), also the Bulls’ top playmaker, is involved in internal squabbles over the contractual commitments of a fellow senior Rugby World Cup Bok, then it is inevitable that the discontent and divisions will spill over to the rest of the team.
While comparatively speaking (in the South African context), the Bulls are considered to be one of the wealthier franchises, there is only so much money to spread around. The eminent return of Victor Matfield (reportedly at a record salary), the huge effort to retain the services of Bakkies Botha and in general, the need to be able to bid for the services of the country’s top players, impact directly on the profitability of the business.
Remember, professional rugby is now a business and in the case of the Bulls 50% of that business belongs to an outside investor, SAIL. The number of professional players and the size of the players’ salary budget has direct implications for the projected profit and consequently, for dividends due to shareholders at the financial year end.
Desire to leave
While the battle is presently focused on retaining the services of Botha, focus will soon shift to the broader spectrum of players and how to retain them in the context of dwindling resources. While 2007 must have been a bumper year for the Bulls, 2008 has been the reverse, with about a 75% drop in attendance figures during the Super 14 home fixtures. This will directly impact on the ability of the franchise to be competitive in the players market. Some important trade-offs will have to be made in order to retain the present recruitment budget.
I said in an earlier column that the Pretoria franchise will soon be faced with critical decisions to make. One of these would be if it is really worth the effort to try and force Botha to stay when it is his desire to leave. How do you motivate a player to give his best for your team when he’d rather be somewhere else? Under the circumstances, I believe, Bakkies should be released from his contract, but only after having negotiated a handsome transfer fee with his new billionaire boss in Toulon!
I know that players must be made to understand that if they sign a legal contract they will be held to it. However, when one works with human beings, whose mental state has a significant effect on their ability to perform at their best and consequently on the performance of your business, the decision on whether or not to let an employee go (as in the case of Botha), becomes pretty obvious.
The money used to pay Botha can be more efficiently utilised to invest in the outstanding young talent of Wilhelm Steenkamp, the bulldozing Hendrik Roodt and the ever improving Fudge Mabetha.
Last week I referred to the danger of getting carried away with the idolisation of players to a point where spectators and coaches believe that they are irreplaceable. While Victor Matfield is certainly a great player, I certainly don’t share the view that the Bulls will be less competitive without him.
Finally, the late surge from the Bulls, led by the return to form of players like Habana, Pierre Spies, Wynand Olivier, Wikus van Heerden and Morne Steyn, signify that this Bulls team is far from down and out, and, if their latest success is followed by the right decisions in the boardroom, the Bulls will be back with their usual stampede in the Currie Cup and the 2009 Super 14!Tweet