The 2019 season saw the departure of many big names from the Bulls: star playmaker Handre Pollard, agile line-breaking centre Jesse Kriel, and their two lineout experts RG Snyman and Lood De Jager.
Also, the trusty old Schalk Brits, a versatile and skilful hooker, hung up his boots after winning the World Cup in Japan last year.
The start of 2020 Super Rugby season was doubtful. They had a major signing in 2020: Morne Steyn, whose primary role was to ease Manie Libbok into the ten jersey. However, Libbok had left for the Durban Sharks just recently.
They played six games, and only won one against the Highlanders, not a Super Rugby powerhouse. They lost five times.
Then, the segregated South African Super Rugby tournament happened. The Bulls are top of the table with a ten-point total aggregate.
How did they manage this, after they had lost so many star players? A couple of guys crucially came to the squad.
Duane Vermeulen returned to captain. They also got Schalk Erasmus, one of the Springboks’ selection candidates. Morne Steyn came from France and found his feet at the Bulls, hitting the ground running.
(Photo by Ashley Vlotman/Gallo Images/Getty Images)
Meanwhile, Stedman Gans has been brought back in from the Blitzboks to replace their elusive, quick-hands centre Jesse Kriel. He and Cornal Hendricks had forged a good midfield partnership. Meanwhile, on the wing, Kurt-Lee Arendse brings pace to crack with space. Behind, David Kriel stands at fullback to replace Warrick Gelant. Gelant played well against Sharks in their exhibition game but he would leave for the Cape Town Stormers.
The Bulls have an extremely powerful forward pack. Their force in the scrum is greatly owed to Schalk Erasmus and Jason Jenkins, two powerhouses in the scrummage. At the base of the scrum, they have Duane Vermeulen to dribble the ball and keep the possession strong at the back if the scrum. Also, Arno Botha and Marco Van Stade both offer some decent dynamism.
They run quite a lot of their major plays off Morne Steyn. This was similar to what we saw last year, with flyhalf general Handre Pollard continuing his direction to steer the Bulls’ ship.
While Morne Steyn is not a like-for-like brilliant flyhalf clone of Handre Pollard, he has certain skills that are solid. He has strong distribution, rock-solid defence, and he is the best tactical kicker that South Africa has to offer. Jake White has managed to structure a game plan around him.
By playing with him as a solo pivot, they managed to use him to bring out all the other pieces onto the ball, as Handre Pollard did in 2019.
They had Steyn to keep the flow as a dependable link and to glue the back line together. He could unleash two carrying options in Cornal Hendricks and Stedman Gans. Both brought pace, but Gans is simply electric. He could select runners extremely well.
Meanwhile, they could have a man like Warrick Gelant on the edge to release wingers like the speedster Kurt-Lee Arendse. Let me discuss how they structured their play around Steyn.
Consider some plays. How about the dismantlement of the Sharks. Steyn steps in as a distributor and his playmaking direction piles in the phases and injects the carrying options hard into the defensive line. He made a series of two touches in rapid succession. He first got a good selection of runners, injecting a teammate in between two Sharks defenders with a pass behind a dummy runner, punching his teammate forwards and trying the defence.
Though this is not a clean break, it is a show of his attacking direction, and after another phase, it came back to Morne Steyn to boot the ball high. This was a highly contestable bomb kick, which led to an aerial fumble. The ball was snapped up by Johnny Kotze, who stepped and sprinted away to score. Steyn set up the second try of the match with his tactical kicking.
(Photo by Richard Heathcote – World Rugby via Getty Images)
In another try, the ball went to Steyn behind a dummy runner, who fired it out with a good bullet pass to release a teammate, who got in the space, setting up the try with draw and pass through his and another back’s hands to Kurt-Lee Arendse for Arendse’s second try of the match.
Consider the influence of Morne Steyn in Super Rugby. Here is an example of his great distribution paying off.
Clearly, there is one major gap in the defence. Steyn passes to Hendricks in the space between two defenders for a punching carry. There is a defensive gap, and Cornal Hendricks breaks through it with sidestepping. It is right from that phase that the ball comes to Stedman Gans, who rips through with agility to score.
However, when those exceptional cases where Steyn is not first receiver happen, it is a special play. For an example, in this try here for Stedman Gans, we see Duane Vermeulen taking the ball and passing to Steyn. This allows Steyn to bring himself in as a running threat, committing two defenders as he runs in between and grubbers the ball through into space. Arendse races after it, gathering the ball on the bounce, offloading to the Blitzboks’ star centre, and Stedman Gans scores.
They often play Steyn as a first receiver, to serve as a distributor, or to hoist high hanging tactical bomb-kicks. With him taking care of the pivoting job, they can work on developing the other pieces. They can bring out wingers to chase tactical kicks.
Usually, they will use Steyn at first receiver off attacking platforms like rucks and set pieces, to select runners in the space in between defenders, injecting their carrying options into play, sometimes forwards, and to greater effect with a big centre like Cornal Hendricks.
Currently, their team is very strong. Schalk Erasmus, Jason Jenkins, and their entire back row are all good carrying options. Also, the dynamism of the flankers makes them good support runners. Embrose Papier brings great pace with his experience in the sevens. Cornal Hendricks is an agile, speedy, and hard-carrying centre. Meanwhile, Stedman Gans is a scintillating 13 and he is an extremely good line-breaker. Their wingers all bring pace out wide.
They have rock-solid defence with good defensive cohesion, especially with captain Vermeulen leading by example in defence.
This is an extremely strong Bulls team. They have always been a team of talent, but under Jake White, this may be the year that they are coming of age.