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Bulls play the percentages but don't expect much flair


Paul Cully

Big task … Tahs captain Rocky Elsom faces the Bulls tonight.

Big task … Tahs captain Rocky Elsom faces the Bulls tonight. Photo: Steve Christo

Placed alongside some flashier examples of the modern age, Bulls five-eighth Morne Steyn cuts an unprepossessing figure. But take a second look. There might be a touch of the diligent suburban accountant about him, but not many can claim to have changed the very way the game is played. His impact has been quite profound.

In 2009, the Springboks, reading the rules of the day more adroitly than their rivals, perfected a game plan of relentlessly raining down kicks on the opposition back three. Laser-guided inquiries from Steyn and Fourie du Preez frequently landed on their targets at the same time as half of the Springboks pack, often accompanied by a chasing winger for good measure. And it created such havoc that it prompted the All Blacks, among others, to rip up the job description of Test winger and start over. These days the model winger in the nation that unleashed Jonah Lomu and Joe Rokocoko is a Cory Jane. In Queensland, Dom Shipperley has pace and aerial skills in equal measure.

The game has changed since 2009. It is supposed the boot plays a slightly less-defining role. And they say the Bulls play a wider game this year. Perhaps. But do not expect a repeat of last week's looseness against the Rebels tonight.

The Bulls still form the fewest rucks a game in the competition and the ball is in play for less time (31 minutes and 35 seconds) than any other side during their games. Steyn chooses the running option one time in every 20. Yet they sit near the top of the ladder in pursuit of a home final that would position them nicely for another shot at the title.

Whether this is a positive is an argument for the aesthetes. Crowds in South Africa don't appear to have suffered. You might argue that the Steyn style is getting in the way of "playing rugby", but be careful not to be tripped up by the principle of consistency. We laud the "all shapes and sizes" argument when it comes to physiques and so it must be with tactics.

Besides, we can get too snooty about these things. Kicking is still a skill, as is receiving. The Bulls' left-winger, Bjorn Basson, might just be the finest exponent of catching the attacking up-and-under in the world. He has tremendous judgment and spring, and no shortage of courage.

Others might find beauty in the aggression of bruising new second-rower Juandre Kruger. Bakkies Botha and Victor Matfield have been farewelled by the men from Pretoria and have quickly moved on. In truth, the old warriors had one eye on the World Cup during last year's Super competition.

But the manner in which the game is being officiated still provides plenty of scope for the Bulls' approach to be successful. Consider the implications of the following statistic. In last week's game between the Crusaders and Reds, as Ewen McKenzie referred to in his column yesterday, 56.3 per cent of ruck and maul penalties were awarded against the team with the ball.

It was a bloated figure but the competition average - 36.5 per cent - tells a story. In our contestable code there is a risk in possession and an opportunity without it, especially against a goalkicker like Steyn and breakaways such as CJ Stander and Deon Stegmann with power over the ball.

In trying to establish if the game has become more suited to the conservatives this year, things become a little trickier.

Certainly kicking has been prominent in games between the heavyweights. And there have been slightly more penalties this year, and more penalties awarded against the team in possession. But our numbers man at cautions that the increases are not statistically significant. It is always advisable to read the warnings on the label when handling dangerous material. If there are trends, they are emerging rather than confirmed.

For the Waratahs at Allianz Stadium tonight the task is simply expressed: the Bulls present particular challenges but unpredictability will not be among them.

There was a telling moment last week in the Brumbies game when former comrade Ben Mowen won an important turnover at a second-half breakdown. Mowen is having a strong season but the tall, angular blindside with long levers is no natural jackal.

Accordingly, the Waratahs' clean-outs against the Bulls will need to have much more conviction. Encouraging selections have been made by the Waratahs' coaches but they will not mean a thing unless accompanied by some hard shoulders and hunger.

It is an evening for the unspectacular but effective. They only need look at the opposition No.10 for any evidence of that.

Twitter: @whiskeycully

4 comments so far

  • Insightful and well-written article. Good work Paul.

    Date and time
    May 11, 2012, 6:29PM
    • Agreed. I haven't been a Cully fan in the past, but this is well written.

      Date and time
      May 11, 2012, 8:09PM
  • i dont know how SA crowds can sit through 80 minutes of a Bulls game. SA teams (barring Cheetahs) play by the theory: "a win is a win". doesnt matter how or how much by. good for them but bad for rugby in general..

    Date and time
    May 11, 2012, 7:13PM
    • You must be joking. Look at the try count in past competitions. And by the way, what's duller than an Australian derby, esp. where the Rebels and Force are concerned?

      Date and time
      May 11, 2012, 8:33PM

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Rugby Internationals 2014

Round 1
Sat, 07 JunTimes shown AEST
SAM 18 vs TGA 18 Report Stats
FJI 25 vs ITA 14 Report Stats
NZL 20 vs ENG 15 Report Stats
AUS 50 vs FRA 23 Report Stats
Sun, 08 JunTimes shown AEST
RSA 47 vs WXV 13 Report Stats
ARG 17 vs IRE 29 Report Stats
USA 6 vs SCO 24 Report Stats
CAN 25 vs JPN 34 Report Stats
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Round 2
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SAM 15 vs ITA Report Stats
FJI 45 vs TGA 17 Report Stats
NZL 28 vs ENG 27 Report Stats
AUS 6 vs FRA Report Stats
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RSA 38 vs WAL 16 Report Stats
CAN 17 vs SCO 19 Report Stats
ARG 17 vs IRE 23 Report Stats
USA 29 vs JPN 37 Report Stats
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ARG 19 vs SCO 21 Report Stats
FJI 13 vs SAM 18 Report Stats
JPN 26 vs ITA 23 Report Stats
AUS 39 vs FRA 13 Stats
NZL 36 vs ENG 13 Report Stats
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RSA 31 vs WAL 30 Report Stats
USA 38 vs CAN 35 Report Stats
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ENG 21 vs NZL 24 Report Stats
WAL 28 vs AUS 33 Report Stats
FRA 40 vs FJI 14 Report Stats
IRE 29 vs RSA 15 Report Stats
SCO 41 vs ARG 31 Report Stats
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Round 7
Sun, 16 NovTimes shown AEDT
ITA 18 vs ARG 20 Report Stats
ENG 28 vs RSA 31 Report Stats
WAL 17 vs FJI 13 Report Stats
SCO 16 vs NZL 24 Report Stats
FRA 29 vs AUS 26 Report Stats
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IRE 49 vs GEO 7 Report Stats
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Round 8
Sun, 23 NovTimes shown AEDT
ITA 6 vs RSA 22 Report Stats
SCO 37 vs TGA 12 Report Stats
IRE 26 vs AUS 23 Report Stats
WAL 16 vs NZL 34 Report Stats
ENG 28 vs SAM 9 Report Stats
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Sun, 30 NovTimes shown AEDT
ENG 26 vs AUS 17 Report Stats
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