The expectations for 2009 won’t be nearly as high as it was last year, simply because the Bulls managed a lowly 10th place in 2008 and the previous year they were Super 14 champions.
However, in South Africa supporters are demanding and the media unforgiving, which means the pressure valve has been opened only slightly.
They remain one of the tournament’s fancied teams and the return of Victor Matfield means they will have the same on-field leadership team in place that won them the title in 2007.
While the Bulls will start their campaign at home – three of the first four matches in Pretoria and the other in Johannesburg (just 50 kilometres down the N1) – they face a road-trip from hell again this year. The Bulls play the Hurricanes, Highlanders, Crusaders, Waratahs and Brumbies on consecutive weekends during their Australasian trip.
Strengths: There is little doubt that their formidable set of forwards and halfbacks are again key to their success. Structure is another vital ingredient and discipline – especially when calls start going against you – will be at a premium.
Weakness: There are no obvious weakness in their frontline selections, but experience could be a key if injuries start to take their toll on the senior players. In most positions there appears to be depth, but as was the case in 2008, a lack of consistency and poor form on the road could hamper the side.
Noteworthy signings: Jaco Pretorius (from the Lions), Dries van Schalkwyk (Boland), Jacques Burger (he played Currie Cup last year, but was in France during the 2008 Super 14 season), Victor Matfield (played Currie Cup, but was at Toulon during the Super 14), Chiliboy Ralepelle (played Currie Cup after missing almost two full years through injury).
Noteworthy losses: Richard Bands (retired/injured), Juandré Kruger (moved to Northampton Saints), Wikus van Heerden (Saracens), Hilton Lobberts (Stormers), Derick Hougaard (Leicester Tigers), Trompie Nontshinga (Griquas/Cheetahs).
Coach: Frans Ludeke, after a bumpy ride in the Super 14 last year, started to find his feet in the Currie Cup. He’s had a year with the squad now and while no miracles are expected, it is expected that the team should improve significantly on their 10th place finish last year.
Captain: Victor Matfield has reclaimed the captaincy armband, from Fourie du Preez – who will be his assistant as he was in 2007. Matfield, while not entirely convincing as a Springbok captain, remains one of the most respected leaders in South Africa and in Pretoria they rate him as high as the rest of the country regards John Smit.
Player(s) to watch: There is no doubt that the return of Victor Matfield will ensure his performances on the field – both as leader and line-out maestro – will be closely followed. But also look out for Jaco Pretorius to evolve into something special in a Bulls backline that will see a lot of quality ball and looks a lot more rounded than what he was used to at the Lions.
2008 Position: 10th
Best finish: Super 14 Winners in 2007
Worst finish: 12th (2002, 2001, 1999)
Home Venue: Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria (Capacity 50,000)
2009 Prediction: The Bulls have a lot of depth, experience and true grit. It will take an enormous effort, given their tough road trip, but they have the potential to reach the play-offs again. We say a top six finish, but just outside the play-offs.
Bulls squad: Heini Adams, Bakkies Botha, Jacques Burger, Marius Delport, Stephan Dippenaar, Fourie du Preez, Jaco Engels, Burton Francis, Rayno Gerber, Dean Greyling, Bryan Habana, Francois Hougaard, JP Joubert, Wayne Julies, Zane Kirchner, Werner Kruger, Derick Kuün, Bandise Maku, John Mametsa, Tiger Mangweni, Victor Matfield, Akona Ndungane, JP Nel, Wynand Olivier, Dewald Potgieter, Jaco Pretorius, Chiliboy Ralepelle, Danie Rossouw, Pierre Spies, Gürthro Steenkamp, Wilhelm Steenkamp, Deon Stegmann, Morné Steyn, Dries van Schalkwyk, Ruan Vermeulen, Pedrie Wannenburg.
Saturday 14 February: v Reds, home
Saturday 21 February: v Blues, home
Saturday 28 February: v Lions, away
Saturday 7 March: v Stormers, home
Saturday 14 March: Bye
Friday 20 March: v Hurricanes, away
Saturday 28 March: v Highlanders, away
Friday 3 April: v Crusaders, away
Saturday 11 April: v Waratahs, away
Friday 17 April: v Brumbies, away
Saturday 25 April: v Chiefs, home
Saturday 2 May: v Western Force, home
Saturday 9 May: v Cheetahs, home
Saturday 16 May: v Sharks, away
Courtesy of Rugby 365Tweet