Pop quiz, hotshot! Which team scored the most tries in the 2007 Super 14? Which side scored the most points in 2009, and then the most points and tries in 2010?
Need a clue? The best attacking side on show also possessed the most abrasive pack of forwards as well as the tournament’s most accurate tactical kickers.
Believe it or not, the Bulls outperformed the flashier New Zealand sides during the 2007, 2009, and 2010 seasons. After embracing what some described as a ‘conservative approach’, the Bulls racked up try-scoring bonus points, monumental wins, and as many as three Super Rugby titles.
Seven years on, and the Bulls are operating under a new high performance manager and coaching staff. The men in charge have binned the template which brought the franchise success in 2007, 2009, and 2010. They have worked hard to transform the Bulls into the Anti-Bulls.
‘Typical Bulls rugby,’ one fan groaned on Twitter in the wake of the side’s disappointing loss to the Highlanders. The comment wasn’t fair, though. The truth is that Nollis Marais’ charges have failed to play traditional Bulls rugby in 2017, and have paid the price with seven defeats in 10 matches.
The wet conditions at Loftus Versfeld on Saturday prescribed a more tactical approach. Both the Bulls and the Highlanders attempted to play the bulk of the match in opposition territory.
In the past, a Bulls side would have viewed such conditions as an advantage. In the past, the Bulls would have had the game plan as well as the players to win the territorial battle and the contest for the high ball.
Overall, the Bulls have looked to keep more ball in hand in 2017. After 12 rounds, they are ranked 15th for kicks from hand and 13th for kicking metres. Nobody can accuse them of kicking too much or attempting to replicate the tactics of the Bulls of old.
What’s more, nobody can accuse them of focusing on defence at the expense of their attack. At this stage, the Bulls have the worst tackle-completion rate (84%) in the tournament.
Have the decisions to focus on attack and kick less solved their problems, though? They’ve scored 23 tries in 10 matches, and are ranked 13th or lower across attacking categories such as metres made, carries, and linebreaks.
Marais’ charges have shown no great urgency to win the breakdowns or collisions. How is that a Bulls side no longer has an appetite for the gainline challenge?
The set-piece performances have been just as disappointing. Overall, the Bulls have scored nine tries from first phase in 2017. Only the Rebels and Sunwolves have scored fewer from the set piece.
Nowadays, it’s the better New Zealand sides that bear a greater resemblance to the Bulls team that dominated Super Rugby in 2007, 2009, and 2010.
The Crusaders and Hurricanes, the top two sides in the Kiwi conference, differ in approach as far as tactical kicking is concerned (the Crusaders are ranked 16th for kicks from hand while the Hurricanes are ranked third). Yet, how often have we seen a New Zealand side using the scrum or lineout as an attacking launchpad?
The Hurricanes have scored more tries than any other team from the first phase (28). Clearly the 2016 champions are generating a lot of momentum at the set pieces and forcing opposition defenders onto the back foot.
Last Saturday, however, the Hurricanes were outplayed at the set piece by the Crusaders. The Cantabrians have scored 23 tries from first phase (which sees them ranked one place behind the Hurricanes. The Lions are in third place with 22 tries).
The Crusaders scored the only try in the derby against the Hurricanes, when they mauled from the lineout.
Expect the All Blacks to use the set piece to similar effect later this year.