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John Mitchell © Gallo Images

Give credit to Mitchell’s Bulls

There was an understandable trend among the people encountered in the greater Kings Park precinct on Saturday night towards focussing on what went wrong with the Cell C Sharks in what can best be described as their no show against the Vodacom Bulls.

Yet while it is true that the Sharks looked limp and were a poor replica of the team that was so good against the Hurricanes in Napier the week before, the talking point after the game should not have been the Durban combination’s inconsistency.

The Sharks may only have been made to look so poor by a Bulls plan that was perfectly executed and just never allowed them into the game. What the Sharks got right against both the Blues and the Hurricanes was that they started strongly. And in the first three minutes against the Bulls they looked comfortable as their early territory forced a penalty and a 3-0 lead.

You might argue that three minutes is nothing in a rugby match and you’d be right. But six minutes can be enough to break you. Which is what happened to the Sharks as the Bulls struck two killer blows to go into a 14-3 lead. There has long been a theory that the pressure of playing at home makes the Sharks more fragile and they appeared to vindicate that theory as they became more and more flustered in the face of the suffocating Bulls defensive system.

Flyhalf Robert du Preez, so comfortable behind an advancing pack the week before and so pinpoint with his place-kicking, missed a penalty attempt he should have been able to kick blindfolded, later in the piece he missed touch with a penalty, and generally the Sharks just looked jittery and nervy. The fear of failure was back and gone was the go for broke mentality of the New Zealand leg of the tour.

But that the Sharks passion and effort levels should be such a focus and talking point is an indication of precisely where the Bulls have an advantage over their rivals. Against the Blues and Hurricanes (who were without Beauden Barrett) the Sharks gained some measure of success by just raising their game, by riding the momentum provided by their motivation, but on a wet day in Durban they needed to bring something different against a team that took on a tactical approach and executed it perfectly.

That was where the Sharks got it wrong against the Bulls. They could not match them tactically, and Bulls coach John Mitchell had correctly surmised that his forwards just had to deny their counterparts the metres of ground that they were able to drive through in New Zealand and blunt the threat of inside centre Andre Esterhuizen and the Sharks would become a one-dimensional team again.

The Bulls pack didn’t dominate the Sharks. Far from it. But they did front them and they did deny the likes of Jean-Luc du Preez the momentum that was needed for the Sharks to be a threat. Esterhuizen scored the only Sharks try but he didn’t have much success in his attempts to bash across the gainline. Indeed, there were times when the Sharks looked like they were going backwards in the face of the advancing Bulls defensive wall.

With those components of the Bulls plan going right, it was up to what Mitchell refers to as the team’s game drivers to control the game. Which is exactly what Handre Pollard and Warrick Gelant did, while the type of game it was and the conditions it was played in also amply explained why Mitchell went for the scrumhalf selection that he did.

Kicking into space behind the defenders worked early in the game for the Bulls like it did the week before for Elton Jantjies and the Lions against the Stormers and there was the right mix of adventure and caution in the Bulls’ game. When the rain intensified after halftime, the Bulls put away all pretences at being an adventurous team and just kicked the ball into Sharks territory, forcing them to play in the wrong areas of the field.

As Sharks coach Robert du Preez put it afterwards, the Bulls had the perfect balance between running the ball and kicking it and they played the conditions perfectly. Does that remind you of something? Maybe this observation won’t meet with universal agreement, but it is what the All Blacks do.

The second half could have been reminiscent for those who remember it of the All Blacks closing down England in a wet weather game at Twickenham a few years ago. The Kiwis went into the match expected to hit England with their usual all-embracing attacking game and did start off with that approach but then when the rain started to fall they focussed on kicking strategy and pick and go and that was how they won the game.

Mitchell has taught the Bulls tactical appreciation, something they showed little inclination towards last year, and while many might ask what the fuss is about considering that the Bulls have still lost more games than they have won this season, that argument ignores the fact that Mitchell has had much more to work on than any other South African coach.

The Bulls are a young team but they are showing composure and tactical appreciation beyond their years. The games they have lost this season, with the exception of the Reds game in Brisbane where frankly they were disappointing, were games they should have been expected to lose given where they are in their development. Their two games in New Zealand drew good reviews from Kiwi commentators, and while they lost by a big margin to the Lions at home, the weaknesses that were on display that day have largely been corrected.

Against the Lions and the Reds the Bulls were guilty of giving their opponents too much space to play with by being a bit passive at times on defence, while the pack lost the game for the team by looking incapable of stopping the Lions’ driving maul.

They also appeared in New Zealand to be too programmed to play from deep, which prompted Mitchell to speak about the virtues of applying a more pragmatic approach when they got home. In the games against the Stormers and the Sharks the Bulls have got that balance right, they’ve shown an ability to manage a game and those other perceived potential vulnerabilities are no longer in evidence.

It is time to give the Bulls their due. They may not win any trophies this season but that was never the plan after the disasters of the past few years. They are though undeniably a team on the move and appear to be developing an ability, rare for a South African team, of being able to win several ways.

Weekend results:

Hurricanes 25 Chiefs 13

Sunwolves 10 Blues 24

Rebels 22 Jaguares 25

Highlanders 43 Brumbies 17

Waratahs 37 Reds 16

Cell C Sharks 10 Vodacom Bulls 40


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