Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – Sentiment … that may prove to be a slightly stronger element than substance when ageing Morne Steyn helps to offset a deflating exodus of Bulls players for Super Rugby 2020.
South Africa’s best-performing team – though only fifth overall – this year might well have had reason to anticipate an even more prosperous follow-up season, but more than half a dozen of their biggest names bidding farewell now only means that head coach Pote Human and his aides are going to have to painstakingly start from scratch in many respects.
Human has already ruefully acknowledged, following the gallant 35-28 exit to the Hurricanes in the quarter-finals, that an uphill task awaits the Loftus-based side if they are to match – never mind even eclipse – the 2019 showing, which was marked by a strong finish to the campaign that will only have frustrated the Pretoria fan base further when they chew on next year’s prospects.
While losing incumbent Springbok Handre Pollard to French employment (a hammer blow that goes at least some way to explaining the two-year return deal for Steyn) is a particularly acute setback after his six years in Pretoria and considering that he seems at about the peak of his powers, the Bulls will find most of their decent 2019 engine-room stripped to a near-shell next year.
No other Super Rugby franchise anywhere, you would think, will suffer the degree of collective damage the Bulls are through the exit of three top-notch locks (Lood de Jager, Jason Jenkins and RG Snyman), utility forward Hanro Liebenberg (he played with some distinction at both blindside flank and in the second row this season), Bok No 8 heavyweight figure in every sense Duane Vermeulen, and the finally retiring, charismatic hooker Schalk Brits.
But that evacuation of steely pack resources also increases the likelihood that the Bulls will labour to provide the kind of platform -- the key sense of “go-forward” -- that brings a player of Steyn’s known style into the game most effectively.
Far less like Pollard in physique and in terms of willingness to receive the ball flat and near the gain line, Steyn’s prior reign – it often enough truly was that, of course – at Loftus (2005 to 2013) was marked by his ability to use his educated boot more than anything else to ensure healthy territorial dominance and chances to strike for tries near the enemy line – often enhanced by the Bulls’ renowned brand of general forward mongrel and the Victor Matfield-era lineout mastery.
It will be a surprise next season, frankly, if the Bulls earn notable amounts of front-foot ascendancy in the boiler room, given just how many rookies (or possible newcomers) seem likely to have to be blooded.
One ray of light is that they will hopefully still have the services of both successful props in 2019, Lizo Gqoboka and Trevor Nyakane, although it would be less than ideal if they have to expose the pair again to the amount of rugby they played in this campaign – both started every match, which is extremely demanding for front-rankers.
But while Steyn will arrive back from Stade Francais more streetwise then even before and also with better exposure now to the demands of fullback (that versatility will come in useful), he is unlikely to have the security in front of him, if he operates primarily at pivot, of the kind of gnarly forwards he did in the three-time title-winning era between 2007 and 2010.
Bakkies Botha, Danie Rossouw, Matfield, Gurthro Steenkamp, Gary Botha … those were the kind of no-nonsense figures who ensured Steyn was able to “dictate” from No 10 in a reasonably conservative but undoubtedly effective way.
Several of the 2019 pack unit might have been able to offer pretty similar comfort in his return season next year – the first of a contracted two for him – but the wantaway trend now hugely diminishes that likelihood.
Instead, and if the Bulls opt to continue playing a more rounded, ball-in-hand game to compensate for a less than imperious front eight, Steyn may find himself best deployed as a mentor of and duty-sharer with Manie Libbok, the 21-year-old who is instinctively geared to an adventurous formula.
He will also remain, naturally, a top-notch factor off the tee … although will a weaker Bulls pack make it possible for this ever-hungry points grabber (1,467, second only to Dan Carter in Super Rugby history) to have as many cracks at the posts as he would routinely like?
And while Steyn, also holder of 66 Test caps, seems to keep himself in fine shape physically, the fact remains that some allowance will have to be made for the sheer, unstoppable ravages of time: he will be 35 for the 2020 campaign and 36 in his intended 2021 swansong.
Make no mistake, the well-travelled pro will be great to have around in the Bulls camp.
But a return to glories past? That might be pushing it.