Looking at the reduced Super Rugby squad named by Bulls coach Frans Ludeke late last week, one starts to see why they have opted for a predominantly green theme for their away playing strip.
The Blue Bulls union, after all, has drawn criticism from a number of quarters over its policy of mass junior player recruitment, often contracting two or three times as many promising under 19s as it needs to ensure a strong player base. The chickens of that discontent (to coin an awful phrase) appear to be coming home to roost, though, with the cash spent on that youth program understood to have seriously undermined pay structures in the senior ranks. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that the money used to pay 100 junior players R5 000 a month not only adds up pretty quickly, but also has to come from somewhere. It turns out that in order to pay their junior “Peter” (or I guess more likely “Pieter”) the Bulls have opted to rob the “Paul” that represents their senior player corps.
Hardly surprising, then, that so many of their seasoned Boks opted to leave this year, leaving them with a squad somewhat lacking in greybeards.
Not that this needs to be a bad thing, of course, provided that the “banked capital” of three Super Rugby titles won by that stalwart core of players buys them interest in the form of a little spectator patience. After all, the Bulls certainly have a fair few juniors to fall back on and with most having been through a pretty rigorous and competitive screening process over the last two or three years, there should be very little doubt that they have retained the best of what was a pretty bloody good bunch to start with.
The time is right, in other words, for the Bulls to reap the rewards of the often ridiculous lengths they have gone to to secure and retain the services of the likes of Arno Botha, Jan Serfontein, Handre Pollard, William Small-Smith and Jacques du Plessis.
Those expecting a strong showing from the Bulls in 2014, though, are likely to be disappointed. They’ve managed to name a reasonable pack of forwards, thanks in no small part to an influx of former Kings players, but that unit lacks genuine star quality, with Botha and du Plessis joining Pierre Spies as the only real “x-factor” players. Tight forward remains a sticking point, with too many of the props that have failed the Bulls in the past retained, while their second row contingent is notably devoid of line-out specialists.
It’s perhaps at halfback, though, where the side will struggle most. Piet van Zyl – the only big-name addition to the squad – comes in to complement the hot-and-cold Francois Hougaard at scrumhalf, but with the uninspiring Louis Fouche and the green-as-a-new-leaf Handre Pollard as the only flyhalves, it’s hard to see the sort of Morne Steyn-inspired game that brought the Bulls their last three trophies replicated with any measure of success in 2014.
Props: Morne Mellett, Dean Greyling, Frik Kirsten, Werner Kruger, Marcel van der Merwe.
Hookers: Callie Visagie, Bandise Maku, Bongi Mbonambi.
Locks: Flip van der Merwe, Paul Willemse, Grant Hattingh, David Bulbring.
Loose forwards: Deon Stegman, Wiaan Liebenberg, Arno Botha, Jacques Engelbrecht, Jacques du Plessis, Pierre Spies, Jono Ross.
Scrumhalves: Francois Hougaard, Piet van Zyl, Rudy Paige.
Flyhalves: Louis Fouche, Handre Pollard.
Midfield: Jan Serfontein, Waylon Murray, JJ Engelbrecht, William Small-Smith.
Outside backs: Bjorn Basson, Akona Ndungane, Sampie Mastriet, Travis Ismaiel, Jurgen Visser, Jesse Kriel, Clayton Blommetjies.
Utility backs: Ryan Nell, Ulrich Beyers.