Talk about it being the best of times and the worst of times. Even Charles Dickens would have been impressed at the adventure I have been on recently. It was as part of a group of Vodacom Red prize winners and it was billed as the trip of a lifetime. It was.
It wasn’t that we travelled Emirates Business to Christchurch and Sydney via Dubai but that we did so as part of the Bulls official party. Anyone can see cities. Few can do so and also experience the inner workings of a modern professional rugby side. On the surface it was a disappointment, losing 14-33, but having the x-ray experience left me full of admiration, optimism and, yes, hope. Take it from me, under John Mitchell the Bulls are on the way back.
First let me pay tribute to the spirit and behaviour of the players. At a time, due to the cricket scandal, when this is very much in the sporting spotlight, the Bulls players were polite, disciplined, dedicated and fun at all times. The Crusaders liaison man with the Bulls told me that during the week he had picked up a Bulls replacement player from the airport. Later that evening he received a call from the player to thank him for doing so. In thirty years the official said it was the first time he had experienced such a thoughtful gesture. These are important and a symptom of bigger things in a team.
There are, surprisingly, no strict rules and regulations about curfews and alcohol. Players are responsible for their performance and know the consequences of dropping below standards. They self-regulate and it is working.
Let nobody question the commitment of the Bulls. They operate in an environment that is organised and logical but my goodness, it is intense. Everything in practice is done at pace and the idea is that, gradually, the games, even against New Zealand sides, will seem normal. However there is a long way to go. Remember, we have slipped so far in recent times.
The Bulls were also a bit unlucky with the weather. From morning to night Christchurch was blanketed by persistent drizzling rain. The Bulls started off at pace and with good possession but were severely hampered by the unfamiliar conditions. The physical commitment and bravery was extraordinary. Rugby is now a game where there is nowhere to hide. The Bulls didn’t. In the end it was the Crusaders killer mauling that did most of the damage. Almost each time they got into the red zone they scored. The Bulls huffed and puffed in similar circumstances but usually failed to score. Maybe they should have taken the points from kicks. Our finishing is well below standard although two good tries did materialise.
After the game I popped into the dressing room to commiserate but soon left. It was no place for a visitor.The Bulls players were bitterly disappointed with the result and this was good to see. When you get used to losing you are a team of losers. This side wants more. They care.
The results from the South African teams this year have been shocking. Maybe the hiatus with the Springboks has affected the Super Rugby sides. Just when you feel things are improving you catch a New Zealand derby game and, as usual, you see the gap in skill level between us and them. It has been depressing.
However, getting an inside view shows that the intent to close it is there. The great Billy Bush, legendary All Black and Canterbury prop, said that the Bulls would win if they played as they had trained all week. They didn’t, but the comment from him was telling. Translated, it means that at least we are now training with the intensity and intent to play fast attacking rugby. The problem is that, as yet, we cannot quite replicate this against top opposition on the paddock. However, the strategy must not change and cool heads are needed to insure it doesn’t. Gradually what is second nature at training will also get onto the match field. Then our natural assets of strength, hardness and aggression will be telling.
The Sharks performance against the Blues, particularly the off-loading, backs up what I have been saying. It seems that we have realised that we have allowed our rugby to become out of date and we must catch up.
There is a long way to go but with the Bulls and Sharks, especially behind the scenes, I detect evidence that at least we have started.