Key calls that changed Bulls' season
Key calls that changed Bulls' seasonSHARE
They were derided and the butt of many jokes, but they have turned out to be two inspired selection changes.
World Cup-winning Springbok Victor Matfield had to endure a lot of criticism for his decision to accept an offer to make a comeback, after two years in retirement, at age 36. However, those jibes have now turned into a chorus of praise for the record-setting lock.
Flyhalf Jacques-Louis Potgieter, at 29 several years the Bok's junior, may not have been in the spotlight as much, but he did not escape the baiters entirely. And he also silenced those hecklers.
Bulls coach Frans Ludeke, speaking to this website ahead of their Round Seven Super Rugby showdown with the defending champion Chiefs in Pretoria on Saturday, pointed to their ability to make good on-field calls as the reason for their success..
"Those [two] are seasoned players with plenty of experience," Ludeke said, when asked about the lock and flyhalf's ability to stay calm and read a game.
"Their ability to make crucial decisions, on the field, is what gives direction to those around them.
"The leadership they provide is crucial. Even when [now injured captain] Flip [van der Merwe] was there, with the support of Victor [Matfield] the right calls were made.
"Victor and Pottie [Potgieter] have given the group a major boost," the Bulls coach added.
In the first two rounds, when the Bulls looked decidedly off the pace, they lost to the Sharks (16-31) and Cheetahs (9-15).
However, since the introduction of the duo to the starting XV, against the Lions in week three, the Bulls have gone on a three-match wining streak – beating the Lions (25-17), the Blues (38-22) and the Sharks (23-19 in the return fixture).
"The other important aspect is that they lead by with the manner they play," Ludeke said, when asked about the ability of the two veteran to keep calm when others appear on the verge of buckling under pressure.
"They give direction [to other players] with their own games," the coach said, adding: "They have great communication skills.
"When they take the lead like that it gives the rest of the team energy.
"In the line-outs Victor makes a big impact and Jacques-Louis [Potgieter] with his tactical appreciation and how he controls the game, to go along with his goal-kicking and the other aspects of his game, is what gets the team going."
It should not surprise pundits that Matfield and Potgieter have the ability to cope with the pressure – given that Matfield has over 250 first class matches to his credit (including a record 110 Tests), while Potgieter is just short of the double century mark in first class rugby.
While Matfield – apart from briefs stints with Griquas, the Cats and Toulon in France – has been mostly with the Bulls, Potgieter has been a real traveller. He played for the Blue Bulls, Bulls, Cheetahs, Free State Cheetahs, Griffons, Bulls and Blue Bulls (again), Sharks and Natal Sharks, Bayonne and Dax, before returning to Pretoria.
But the former Afrikaanse Hoër Seunskool product looks like he has never left Pretoria.
The other key aspect going into Saturday's encounter with the Chiefs is that there has been some continuity in selection – the return of veteran wing Akona Ndungane, from compassionate leave after the death of his father, bringing some additional experience.
Ludeke admitted that retaining the virtually unchanged helps a lot in terms of combinations and rhythm.
And believing in what they were doing, while trusting each other, also helped them turn things around after the defeats in the opening weeks.
"We knew we were doing the right stuff, we just didn't get the results from the first two matches," Ludeke told this website.
"The [weather] conditions limited us in the way we wanted to attack," he said, adding: "We also needed a game or two to settle down as a group – with a number of new players coming in this season."
He admitted they were a "bit fortunate" in last week's game against the Sharks (a 23-19 win in Pretoria), which Ludeke felt could have turned out differently in the last few minutes.
"That is why it was such a special result, because we managed to shut them out and we got the reward for the hard work [by the players] on the day.
"However, we know there is another big game waiting for us [against the Chiefs at Loftus Versfeld] this coming weekend."
By Jan de Koning