There may not be much to show in the way of silverware if you exclude the South African Conference title that they won, but 2019 has in many ways been a turnaround year for the Blue Bulls and Bulls.
And, virtually every day when one wants to expound upon the virtues of the franchise and the union in 2019, another achievement is brought to one’s attention.
The latest, for example, is that the BBRU is the highest rated BEE level rugby company in South Africa. They are higher rated than even the SA Rugby Union.
And of course, over the season, they produced two Springbok captains, have eight players in the Boks World Cup squad (equal to that of the Stormers and the group of internationals) and also had a new Springbok, Lizo Gqoboka, capped.
Their aim and challenge will be to kick on from year, despite the loss of many senior players including Springboks Duane Vermeulen, Schalk Brits, Handré Pollard, Lood de Jager, Jason Jenkins, RG Snyman and Jesse Kriel.
It was the year of the BBRU’s 81st anniversary since their secession from the huge Transvaal Rugby Football Union in1938. And this year, under Willem Strauss as president, the union and its teams have slowly begun the turnaround in a planned effort to again reach the heady heights of the past.
The Bulls and Blue Bulls won more than 82 % of all matches at all levels in 2019.
But how much did they achieve?
Plenty as this article will show.
1. CLUB RUGBY
Probably the Blue Bulls greatest single achievement of recent years is the on-going success in their effort to resurrect club rugby in the union.
Cross-border club competition
A new cross-border Volcano competition was launched, with a total of eight clubs taking part in each of the Volcano Super Cup and the Volcano Super Trophy leagues. The aim was to create an additional pipeline and pathway for players and coaches to the provincial, and even professional, structures of the Blue Bulls.
Both these competitions included four teams from each of its eight competing clubs: a first, second and third team for the senior section and an U20 team – a total, therefore, of 64 teams playing competitive rugby against their equals from neighbouring unions during the full course of the season.
The eight clubs from the Blue Bulls (four in each of the two leagues) were joined by eight clubs (four in each of the Cup and Trophy leagues) from the Valke, Leopards and Pumas.
The hugely successful U20 League was decided on to include more than 50 junior Blue Bulls contracted players in a competition that was to create a platform for contracted and club players to participate with and against one another. It was the first time that this had been done in more than two decades in the Blue Bulls Rugby Union structure.
Underlying the establishment of the U20 competition was the search for a solution to retain as many of the U19 players who were suddenly left without a competitive rugby home following the scrapping by SA Rugby of the national rugby competition on a league basis and which is to be replaced by a single tournament next month.
It was a club competition where the aimed at principle of strength versus strength was obvious. Such was the standard of this competition that there were 62 players from the BBRU’s Volcano leagues (39 of them from Blue Bulls clubs) who were selected to represent the Pumas, Griquas, Valke and Limpopo for their teams in the national U20 competition. All these players are non-contracted but now have the experience of playing at provincial level.
There are also six coaches from the Volcano U20 competitions also coach at provincial level.
Three weeks ago, when Limpopo played the Pumas in the U20 competition, 31 of the players who took to the field during the game and both team coaches were involved in the two Volcano competitions. In an earlier match, the full Limpopo squad of 22 players had “graduated” through the Volcano leagues.
At senior level, aware that the new contracting structure and payment ceilings decreed by SA Rugby will increasingly necessitate the need to supplement the smaller pool of professional players, the Blue Bulls have begun a serious drive to resurrect their once outstanding club system.
Already the Naka Bulls club have acquired the services of former Springbok flank Jacques Potgieter, prop Hencus van Wyk who played Super Rugby for the Bulls, Lions and Sunwolves and two Blitzboks.
There is also the resurrection of Pretoria Rugby Club, the oldest club in the former sub-union of Transvaal and then the new union Northern Transvaal when it was granted independence as a rugby union.
Strauss and his committee have resurrected the club that died a rugby death as so many other clubs increasingly do.
Pretoria played in the Volcano Trophy competition, and their second and third teams both reached the finals with the third team proving their depth when they won the third team final. Pretoria were crowned winners of the
The four Carlton Cup clubs from the BBRU played against the other four clubs in the Volcano Cup competition with the results between them counting for both the union’s premier competition and the Volcano league.
Tuks finished top of both competitions with the Carlton Cup decider played two weeks ago when they beat Naka Bulls 29-19 in a tight match.
The Volcano Superrugby Cup semi-finals take place this weekend, with Tuks and Naka Bulls playing at home against Centurion and Northam Rhinos.
2 SUPER RUGBY
It can’t be and shouldn’t be compared to their great era when the Bulls won three Super Rugby titles in the four years between 2007 to 2010, but overall it has been a successful 2019 for the franchise and the union.
However, after a few poor years, the Bulls did well enough under hastily appointed coach Pote Human to finish top of the four South African sides in the Super Rugby competition.
From last place in the SA Conference last year, they moved to the top SA in the Super Rugby competition; they returned from their four-match Australasian tour with a win, two draws and a loss, their most successful tour since 2010 when they won the Super Rugby competition for the second year in succession and a third time overall.
Reaching the play-offs in fifth place was also the first time that the Bulls have made it to the play-offs since 2013.
Their last play-off in 2013 ended with a defeat against Crusaders in the semi-final after the Bulls were conference winners and were second in the overall standings.
On an individual note, Handré Pollard who succeeded Lood de Jager after the Springbok lock was injured early in the Super Rugby campaign, scored the most points in the 2019 competition. He scored 170 points, 28 more than Bryce Hegarty of the Reds.
It was the first time since Morné Steyn topped the list in 2007 that this feat had been achieved by a Bulls player.
The 2019 fifth place overall is the Bulls second highest finish in nine years since they won the title in 2010 when they beat the Stormers 25-17 in the Soweto final. They thereby retained the title they won the previous year when they trounced the Chiefs 61-17 at Loftus.
3. BLUE BULLS
After being dominated by the Lions and Golden Lions over the past eight of years, the Bulls and Blue Bulls won six from six encounters this season: twice in Super Rugby, once in the Currie Cup, once in the SuperSport Challenge, and tice in the U21 Championship.
It was also the first time in seven years that both the Bulls, in the Super Rugby competition, and the Blue Bulls in the Currie Cup, have won at Ellis Park.
The Blue Bulls have had their own ups and downs and their performances in this competition were the only major downside in their season.
The Currie Cup side, albeit without of their players who are either injured or with the Springbok squad, have underperformed.
Yes, the Blue Bulls side in the Currie Cup series did lose their three leaders to the Springbok squad. Lood de Lager, who was appointed captain fort the season was injured in the second match, and his successor as captain Handré Pollard and Duane Vermeulen were captain and vice-captain of the Springboks.
Another member of the Bulls leadership group, Schalk Brits, also captained the Boks and the appointed Currie Cup captain Nick de Jager never took to the field with an Achilles injury. His replacement Burger Odendaal was also injured and the captaincy went to Henk Steenkamp who handed over the captaincy to Ivan van Zyl when he, too, was injured.
Still, these were no reason for their poor performance. There was enough quality to make Blue Bulls supporters believe for a better return in the Currie Cup.
The Under 21s have been the standout-team in SA Rugby U21 Championship. Two close losses haven’t been enough to keep them from the topping the log, with their points difference of 250 much better than that of second-placed WP (57) and than the Sharks, the only other side of the six competing teams with a positive points differential (27).
♦ A pointer to the Blue Bulls future may well be the additional interest shown and effort put into the schools’ structures. The Blue Bulls qualified for the Craven Week’s main match, in effect the unofficial final, for only the third time this century.
They lost to Western Province this year in their first appearance in the main match of the tournament since 2012 when they best the Golden Lions 46-0. Before that there were appearances in 1990 (lost to Natal), 1991 (beat Border), 1993 (beat SE Tvl), 1996 (beat WP) and 2006) and 2006 (beat the Golden Lions).
And Menlopark won the Virsekerbeker for schools first teams with a resounding 44-17 win against Helpmekaar in an unexpected but comprehensive win. It was Menlopark’s first win in the competition that over years had many names after establishing itself as the schools premier competition as the Administrator’s Cup.