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FEATURE Part apex predator, part immovable bovine - meet the new-look Bulls

Part apex predator, part immovable bovine - meet the new-look Bulls
6 months ago

What instantly comes to mind when you think of the Blue Bulls? Even casual rugby fans will get this one, such is the power of the club’s rugby identity and the hulking giants who have worn the famous sky blue jersey since 1938.

Crunching tackles, grinding mauls, indomitable scrums, totemic line-outs, exhausting clear-outs, brutal contacts. There’s seldom been much room for subtlety and grace. Then again, what else would you expect from a side named after a one tonne mammal with horns and a short temper?

But a new wind is swirling round the country’s capital. And rather than blow away those revered virtues, it has helped turn the Bulls into a more potent force.

“We’re adding to our traditions with a really exciting running game,” says Stedman Gans, the Bulls outside centre who also has 44 caps for the South Africa Sevens side. “We’ve got speed in the backline. We still take pride in the things that the club is known for, but we’ve got more to us now. It’s very exciting.”

Getty
Sergeal Petersen of the Vodacom Bulls with ball in hand. Photo by Huw Fairclough/Getty Images

The numbers support Gans’ claim. The Bulls top the United Rugby Championship for points scored, tries scored and clean breaks. They have the second-most offloads in the competition and are third for metres gained with ball in hand. And rather than being an aberration, this season is the next step on the team’s evolution over the past three campaigns.

A clear linear progression since the 2021-22 season is evident across a range of metrics. Metres made, line breaks, defenders beaten, carry dominance, tackle evasion rate, gainline success, attacking entries to the opposition 22 as well as moves that stretch beyond 20 metres are all up from last season, which in turn were up from the one before that. Something wholly out of what we’ve come to expect is taking place on the Highveld and like a Bull let loose down the sloping streets of Pamplona, this lot is quickly gathering momentum.

“If you look at the certain type of player the Bulls have brought into the squad, it’s obvious the sort of rugby we want to play,” says Sergeal Petersen, the electric winger who made the switch from the Stormers at the end of last season. “The competition in the squad, especially in the outside backs, is really strong. That’s what we want. I think everyone is enjoying the brand of rugby we’re playing.”

What has changed over the last few years is the playmakers are playing a more open game.

Petersen’s own contribution has been limited to just four appearances since the start of November, though he has performed well when given the chance. Unfortunately for the 29-year-old he is vying for a starting berth against Canan Moodie and Kurt-Lee Arendse, who, along with new recruit Willie le Roux, form what is arguably the most formidable back three in club rugby.

“The reality is these guys are World Cup winners,” Petersen muses when asked if his lack of game time has been a source of frustration. “You have to give them their flowers. They’ve performed phenomenally well and I just have to do my job and take the opportunity when it comes my way. The coaches have seen something I can bring and I just need to be ready. I’ve got experience, maybe more than the other wingers, so I just have to do my part, whatever that is.”

Both Gans and Petersen make sure to point out that the Bulls haven’t sacrificed any grunt up front in order to accommodate their jet-heeled host-steppers out wide. “It’s a cliche but you still have to earn the right to spread the ball,” Gans explains. “The big boys in the tight five still do an amazing job. They’re getting us moving in the right direction. In that way we’ve still maintained our identity.

Stedman Gans
Stedman Gans says there is excitement around the Bulls camp about the direction of travel (Photo by Charle Lombard/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

“I think what has changed over the last few years is the playmakers are playing a more open game. [Fly-half] Johan [Goosen] is a quality player and he could play in the midfield. He can step. He can pass. He’s dynamic as well. So is Chris [Smith] and Jaco [van der Walt, the back up 10s]. And our scrum-halves are the same. So maybe that’s where things have changed. They know exactly how we want to play.”

It’s not that the pivots are playing a frenetic sevens-style rugby and running it every chance they get. They’re kicking more per 80 minutes this season compared to the last two years and they’re barely getting the ball beyond a second receiver (only the Stormers have a lower percentage on this front in the URC). What is noticeable is the way they’re varying the direction of the attack.

As was expertly analysed by the Oom Rugby account on X, the Bulls demonstrated their multangular strike threat on Saturday against the Sharks when they had the feed to a scrum on the halfway line. With potential runners set evenly on either side of the set-piece, they shaped to go left before exploding down the right, duping the Sharks defenders into committing down the wrong channel.

“When I was young I knew what a Bulls player looked like. They were a confrontational team. An in your face team. Now there isn’t a set way. I’m small [1.8m, 85kg] but I’m playing 13.

Stedman Gans

Gans stuck tightly to Goosen who drifted across the pitch before skipping a pass to Moodie in space. Gans sprinted round to Moodie’s outside shoulder where he collected the popped ball to canter home from 30 metres out. It was both brutally efficient and dazzling in its execution.

“Rugby is changing around the world,” Gans says. “We’ve recognised that. We’re evolving. And I think the fans are now expecting more from us. They want to see us attack and spread the ball. We don’t feel pressure but we want to give them what they want.

“When I was young I knew what a Bulls player looked like. They were a confrontational team. An in your face team. Now there isn’t a set way. I’m small [1.8m, 85kg] but I’m playing 13. You look around the dressing room and you know you have to have an all-round game. If you’re not on it, someone else is going to take your place.”

Jake White
World Cup winning coach Jake White is masterminding a Bulls renaissance (Photo by Tim Clayton/Getty Images)

The great all-conquering Bulls side that claimed three Super Rugby titles between 2007 and 2010 had a distinct identity. With Victor Matfield, Bakkies Botha, Guthro Steenkamp and Danie Rossouw controlling the tight five, Pierre Spies causing havoc in the back row, the metronomic Fourie du Preez at nine and Morne Steyn at 10 were almost always playing off the front foot. Though they had Bryan Habana lurking on the wing, their tactics more or less consisted of smashing their opponents with a sledgehammer before trampling over their broken remains.

These Bulls are a different sort of breed. Part apex predator, part immovable bovine. Still with plenty of heft, they’ve added sharp bite to their brutishness.

Comments

2 Comments
R
Raymond 186 days ago

Running with the Bulls..

R
Raymond 186 days ago

I grew up in Pretoria in the 60s and 70s but became a judo champion, I did not play rugby. I moved from Pretoria to the USA in 1976. In later years of age I become a rugby fanatic and joined Belmont Shore Rugby club in Los Angeles and played in USA Sevens club rugby national rugby championships with 20 to 25 yeas-old’s, but I was 60 years old. (As as a scientist I knew all the anti-aging science). I went to visit Pretoria on vacation in 2008, and just showed up at Loftus one afternoon in rugby outfit and boots for fitness training and running, and the bulls saw me. To my amazement the Bulls invited me to train with them including full contact, including pick and goes and mauls, and they loved me. What a wonderful two weeks before I went back to the USA for my job.

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