The Bulls opened their Super Rugby campaign at home in Pretoria with an emphatic 40-3 statement win over the troubled Stormers, a complete reversal of the pre-season clash between the two sides, and in the process uncovered a new weapon and an old one – Rosko Specman and astute tactical kicking.
The addition of Blitzboks Sevens star Specman proved a masterstroke as he knifed the Stormers to bits twice inside the first quarter of the game. The speed Specman brings, even at 29-years-old, gives the Bulls a lethal finisher who can create all on his own, or roam around and work off the ball-players to create mismatches as he did on his second try.
Specman showed an invaluable ability to provide pressure on kick-chase with his top-level speed and complete his tackles with a high success rate, an undervalued part of his game which the Bulls will use off the back of first five-eighth Handre Pollard’s long driving kicks. His reading of the game from the backfield is still green, his rolling coverage will need to improve but overall this looks like a boom signing.
The return of former Stormer Duane Vermeulen to Super Rugby in a Bulls jersey has bolstered the pack with a world-class eight, and he showed that in the first half an hour with over 60 metres on eight carries.
More impressive was the back row as a unit, with Hanro Liebenberg and Ruan Steenkamp in combination with Vermeulen forcing six turnovers and imposing themselves on the Stormers in defence as part of a brutal Bulls line, while veteran hooker Schalk Brits also impressed in his short return before being forced from the field.
With the Bulls coaching staff not being appointed until mid-way through the pre-season, even with the large number of quality signings, this kind of dominant result wasn’t expected.
They may still be benefitting from processes installed by John Mitchell last year as the new coaching staff has had little time to work with the squad, but the Stormers were objectively awful and could not find an answer to the tactical kicking of the Bulls halves.
The Stormers’ backfield coverage was all over the shop, allowing the likes of Pollard, Warrick Gelant and Embrose Papier to tactically kick the Stormers out of the game. The Bulls halves pairing kicked more than double that of the Stormers, and did so on a third of their possessions.
Pollard played the corners and took the space when offered, using a deft chip off set-piece to set up a try for Jesse Kriel early in the second half to put the game beyond a shadow of a doubt. The Springbok centre nearly had a flawless game, distributing wisely and defending well until a few errors crept in late in the game.
The Stormers have as many on-field issues as they do off it, with defensive breakdowns a constant worry not to mention basic execution errors. At 28-3 early in the second half, the Bulls basically shut down the game by taking every available three and played for territory for nearly fifty minutes.
The third try to Bulls winger John-Ben Kotze contained nice lead-up work but the Stormers defence made horrendous reads, with nearly every player out of sync and playing outside of any visible system and without trust in each other.
Despite the visitors being laden with Springbok talent, it would be dangerous to put too much weight on beating this Stormers outfit by a big score. The Lions remain king in the South African conference until proven otherwise, and the Sharks are building, proving last year they can go on the road and win in New Zealand, something the Bulls have struggled with in recent years.
The Bulls haven’t won an overseas game since 2016, in over two years, and haven’t won on New Zealand soil since 2013. The first test will come next week when they travel to Argentina to play the Jaguares before key conference games against the Lions and Sharks.
If the Bulls can continue their form through this early block of four games, it could set them up for a favourable run into playoff qualification. Their Australasian tour isn’t due into Round 13, by which point they will have built into the season and determined much of their conference fate.
The one factor of the Bulls’ game that holds the most weight out of the performance is the defensive showing, limiting the visitors to three points and conceding no tries, which gives the strongest indication that they may turn the corner in 2019.
They will need to take that defensive resolve to Buenos Aires.
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