It may be called the South African conference, but all the evidence is pointing towards a certain Argentinian side finishing the season atop it.
The only team ever to win a Super Rugby title for South Africa – three of them, in fact – the Bulls had a disappointing season in 2018 which has sparked a change in coach and a busy recruiting period.
Coach: Pote Human
Captain: Lood de Jager
Major signings: Schalk Brits (Saracens), Duane Vermeulen (Toulon), Paul Schoeman (Cheetahs), Garth April (Sharks), Cornal Hendricks, Rosko Specman (rugby sevens).
Major departures: Pierre Schoeman (Edinburgh), Adriaan Strauss (retired), Ruben van Heerden (Sharks), Francois Brummer (Zebre), Dries Swanepoel (Cheetahs), Jamba Ulengo (released).
Lood de Jager (c), Matthys Basson, Lizo Gqoboka, Madot Mabokela, Simphiwe Matanzima, Nqoba Mxoli, Trevor Nyakane, Dayan van der Westhuizen, Conraad van Vuuren, Frans van Wyk, Schalk Brits, Johan Grobbelaar, Edgar Marutlulle, Jaco Visagie, Jason Jenkins, RG Snyman, Hendre Stassen, Tim Agaba, Thembelani Bholi, Nick de Jager, Carel du Preez, Jannes Kirsten, Paul Schoeman, Roelof Smit, Ruan Steenkamp, Muller Uys, Marco van Staden, Hanro Liebenberg, Jano Venter, Duane Vermeulen, Theo Maree, Embrose Papier, Ivan van Zyl, Andre Warner, Marnitz Boshoff, Manie Libbok, Handre Pollard, Stedman Gans, JT Jackson, Johnny Kotze, Jesse Kriel, Franco Naude, Burger Odendaal, Dylan Sage, Cornal Hendricks, Travis Ismaiel, Duncan Matthews, Rosko Specman, Jade Stighling, Warrick Gelant, Divan Rossouw.
Won 6, lost 10, finished fifth in the South African Conference, 12th overall
If seeking positives in their 2018 season, then the Bulls could well point to the fact they increased their number of wins from four the previous year to six.
However that total still left them as the worst team in the South African conference – tied with the Stormers on win-loss, but behind them on points difference.
With the exception of that four-win season in 2017, the Bulls have not been as low as six wins since 2008.
Kiwi John Mitchell coached the side through to the end of the year but announced his departure when the season finished, moving to a position with the England national team.
It was a disappointing finish to the year, but an off-season recruitment splurge means the Bulls we carry some momentum into 2019.
Put simply: the attack. Probably the most impressive aspect of the Bulls’ 2018 season is that although it didn’t result in a ton of wins, they managed to score the seventh-most tries of any side in the competition.
The six sides that scored more all went onto make the playoffs, so the Bulls will take heart from knowing their ability to pile points on compares to the best.
Where they’re set to get the biggest boost is from a busy recruiting period that has some pundits labelling them the winners of the offseason.
Duane Vermeulen, Cornal Hendricks and Schalk Brits, in particular, will add an instant boost of quality and experience to a team that has lacked both, while Blitzbokke excitement machine Rosko Specman will provide plenty of pace following his switch across from the sevens circuit.
If a team scores well but wins rarely then it follows logically that the third side of that triangle must be a leaky defence.
And the numbers bear that out – while the Sunwolves outpaced the rest of the competition by a wide distance for defensive awfulness, the Bulls were only one tier behind them in badness, conceding 502 points (between the Blues’ 509 and the Reds’ 501).
Like many of the competition’s poorer teams, form away from home was a problem for the Bulls last year. They won only a single match on the road.
In terms of their squad, they’d probably like to have more proven talent among their props. There’s not a lot of experienced talent outside of Trevor Nyakane.
Boasting a new coach in Human Pote and a number of high-quality recruits, the Bulls seem to have at least some of the ingredients required for an improved performance in 2019.
That said, so much change can take some time to gel, and there’s still a very young flavour to this team – season 2019 might be too soon to expect any rapid improvement.
Prediction: Fourth in the South African Conference, 11th overall