Matfield's return indicates tough run for Bulls - Growden
Greg Growden and Andy Withers
February 10, 2014
Victor Matfield might just be the Bulls' fulcrum in 2014 © Scrum.com
Bulls' Super Rugby 2014 Squad
The most successful South African Super Rugby team in history, with three titles, the Bulls have a proud history and demanding and parochial fans to please in Pretoria, where Loftus Versfeld is forever one of the rabid-most venues in world rugby. They coped well enough without Victor Matfield, Bakkies Botha and Fourie due Preez last year, playing their traditional brand of physical rugby and winning all but one of their home-and-away matches in the Republic, but this season without another raft of key names, including Morne Steyn, they stand at a precipice even with the unlikely return of Matfield. Greg Growden says times must be tough up on the veldt if they have lured Matfield back to head their forward charge, and their dearth of experience - the legend aside - is bound to work against one of the most consistent Super Rugby provinces
Last Season: semi-finals, first in South African Conference; the Bulls dominated their conference in 2013, when we had expected they might struggle in the first year without a trio of legends; they profited, however, from what hindsight suggests was a soft draw, and the manner of their semi-final defeat by the Brumbies - undone by a late converted try after failing themselves to score from repeated attacking lineouts when they eschewed easily kickable penalties because they feared gifting the visitors field position from the restart - illustrated the failings and shortcomings within the system. Also worth noting they lost their one other match in South Africa, to the resurgent Stormers in Cape Town in the final round, when they were under pressure playing for the minor premiership and home-field advantage through the finals.
Greg Growden and Russell Barwick examine the Super Rugby challenge from South Africa's five franchises
Key man: Whoever wears the No.10 jumper; Louis Fouche seems to have first dibs after his maiden campaign in 2012, but South Africa Schools and Junior World Championship winner Handre Pollard has bountiful physical attributes and is considered to have Springboks potential. They must kick well - from hand as well as at the posts - for that is central to the Bulls' strategy, but Steyn also scored tries and featured highly in stats for try and linebreak assists as he knew intimately where and when to go close to the ruck. Jacques-Louis Potgieter has returned from France to add a third string to the bow, but he is surely not a man to make a massive difference.
Key Stat: The Bulls' game plan is founded on their pack of traditional raw-boned forwards, and it's no surprise they ranked No.1 in the lineout last season. But they also ranked equal last with Southern Kings in "scrum success" (84%). Room for improvement, Bulls.
Rising star: Jacques du Plessis made his Super Rugby debut off the bench against the Stormers last year, when he subsequently also played 12 Currie Cup matches for the Blue Bulls, and the former South Africa Under-20 player, one of the stars of the 2013 IRB Junior World Championship, is considered to be a Springboks star in the making. He stands 2.01m and weighs119kg, and plays both in the second-row and as a flanker; we think he'll enjoy plenty of game time this year even after the return of Victor Matfield.
Season Preview: How do you cover the loss to France of Steyn, perhaps the greatest fly-half in South African rugby history and the man around whom your entire game plan revolves? You don't. You hope and pray Fouche and Pollard imitate him passably. The Bulls also have to cover the loss of Chiliboy Ralepelle, Willie Wepener, Juandre Kruger, Dewald and Jacques Potgieter, Jano Vermaak, Wynand Olivier and Zane Kirchner, yet the Blue Bulls struggled in the 2013 Currie Cup, failing to make the finals. The season-long loss of Springboks flanker Arno Botha is another damaging blow. But they do have Victor Matfield returning to the fold: he is not expected to play every game, and he is likely to play a number from the bench, but his experience and know-how will undoubtedly be key even if the game has changed since he quit in 2011.
Greg Growden's verdict: Times must be tough up on the veldt if the Bulls have lured back Victor Matfield to head their forward charge. Sure, Matfield was a great player; but it is a big call for a huge guy in his-mid 30s who has been out of the game for three years to suddenly become the savior. Still, one can comprehend why Matfield has been called back; the Bulls have lost so many senior players, including Zane Kirchner, Jacques Potgieter, Chiliboy Ralepelle, Wynand Olivier and Morne Steyn. So this could easily be the year when a regular semi-finalist stumbles big time. It will all depend on the youngsters, and their ability to pick up the slack, but the dearth of experience - Matfield aside- is bound to work against one of the most consistent Super Rugby provinces.
Tip: Fourth in South African Conference. Finish: Eleventh.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
Where does Italy's win over Scotland rank among their successes in the Six Nations? Scrum Sevens investigates
The tone was set early on in Dublin as a more clinical Ireland made England pay. All is not lost, however, argues Phil Vickery
Monday Maul takes in retirement talk, England reshuffles, France's unfair advantage and Scotland's communication breakdown
John Griffiths takes an analytical look at Week 3 of ESPN Scrum's Fantasy Rugby game - who should you have picked?