Cape Town - The Bulls are three-time winners of Super Rugby, and still the only South African team to have boasted the honour in the post-1995 era ... can they relive past glories this year?
Sharks (a), Stormers (a), bye, Blues (h), Jaguares (h), Highlanders (h), Reds (a), Waratahs (a), Hurricanes (a), Chiefs (a), Lions (h), bye, Sunwolves (h), Brumbies (h), Lions (a), Sharks (h), Jaguares (a), Stormers (h). Don’t play: Crusaders, Rebels.
Their record last season:
Second in SA conference, fifth overall (won eight, lost six, drew two). Beaten 35-28 in Wellington quarter-final by Hurricanes.
Five potential strengths:
* Avoiding champions the Crusaders in ordinary season this year (the New Zealanders won 45-13 at Loftus in 2019) is naturally very good news for them in roster terms, even if starting with taxing away derbies against the Sharks and Stormers respectively brings a risk of an unwanted back-foot situation early on.
* The continuity that comes with Pote Human having a second successive season as head coach: that may not seem anything special to some of the more settled outfits competition-wise when it comes to masterminds, but he will be the only South African franchise coach NOT making his debut at this level in 2020, has been part of the broader Loftus rugby furniture for many years ... and did pretty well last year, when all is said and done.
* Considering the dramatic extent of the defections after last season, the Bulls should not be made to feel under too burdensome a weight of pressure to be instant market leaders either domestically or competition-wide; there is the potential for them to be dark horses, even as Human slowly remoulds his side after the big shakeup.
* While their workloads may have to be carefully managed considering the vast “miles” already in their bodies, the experience provided by two returning Bulls old boys - points-machine flyhalf Morne Steyn and second-rower Juandre Kruger - plus the first-time presence of much-travelled Josh Strauss in their No 8 jersey should have a constructive, calming and educative effect on several players around them.
* Both are returning from disruptive injuries in 2019, but if the Bulls can keep likely first-choice props Trevor Nyakane, at tighthead, and still Bok-ambitious loosehead Lizo Gqoboka (two Test caps as a substitute) fit and fresh, their scrum has the potential to be more forceful than some foes perhaps anticipate.
Five possible snags:
* For all the relief of getting seasoned Steyn back, the No 10 void left by clear-cut Bok incumbent Handre Pollard (now France-based) is pretty enormous, after his key presence for the cause between 2014 and 2019. They will miss his muscular, assertive raids to (and often over) the advantage line; Steyn and up-and-coming Manie Libbok bring slightly different styles of play to the party.
* The quite extraordinary loss of lock personnel since 2019. This year’s squad will be without the services of three highly-touted internationals in Lood de Jager, RG Snyman (that pair massive lineout and general athletic factors) and Jason Jenkins, plus Zimbabwean-born Eli Snyman who has flown the coop to Benetton. Plenty rests, you’d think, on the expected main combo of Kruger and Andries Ferreira staying healthy.
* A bye after only two rounds (and no home game under the belt yet) isn’t ideal for the Bulls, as it will then lead to an uninterrupted sequence of eight fixtures without a break - including taking in the four-match tour of Australasia. On a brighter side, the home straight toward the knockouts looks reasonable enough for them.
* There is pressure on their two primary scrumhalves, Ivan van Zyl and Embrose Papier, to produce the sort of standards in the berth anticipated from key rivals like the Stormers (emerging Bok impact sensation Herschel Jantjies) and the Sharks, where there is nice depth with seasoned Louis Schreuder competing with raw but potentially dangerous Sanele Nohamba, and Cameron Wright. Van Zyl and Papier, both sporadic Boks so far, run each other close ... but will one of them rise notably like cream to the surface, which might be the most constructive occurrence?
* The disturbing, increasing lack of enthusiasm for Super Rugby from the Loftus faithful. Remember that particularly embarrassing home attendance of 7,483 against the Waratahs last season, even with the Bulls looking healthily-placed for a playoffs spot already? A good start, and some creative marketing/promotions, may be important in getting bums on Pretoria seats in 2020.
Fabulous, fair, or fallible?
Sport24 verdict: Fair