Cape Town – The Bulls may have reached last season’s United Rugby Championship final, but they had to fight back from five defeats in their first six games.
That outcome is something they are keen to avoid from happening again, starting with Saturday’s opener against the Lions at Ellis Park (4.05pm kickoff).
The Pretoria side were thrashed 31-3 and 34-7 by Irish giants Leinster and Connacht respectively, before beating Cardiff 29-19 in Wales.
But that was followed by losses to Edinburgh (17-10), the Sharks (30-16) and Stormers (30-26), with five of those encounters away from home.
Coach Jake White, though, will want a much better start in this campaign, to avoid another knockout-type finish to the league season in order to qualify for the playoffs.
Their turnaround in the previous campaign began against the Lions, whom they defeated 34-10 and 21-13 in consecutive weeks in late January and early February, and the Bulls went on to win seven out of eight games to get right back into contention.
“It’s the first URC game and everyone’s excited. We’ve had six weeks of pre-season and everyone’s just looking forward to the first game,” captain Marcell Coetzee said from Loftus Versfeld this week.
“It it’s the first game, and it might be a bit rusty and all over the place (as they had a five-week off-season break). But the quicker that we can find our feet, from the get-go, and just get our systems implemented – and getting our composure – it should be a good rhythm in the game.
“We are hoping to set a marker early in the tournament, and playing a quality side like the Lions should be tough, but we are looking forward to the challenge.
“Last year was our first time in the tournament, so there were a lot of questions and wondering… I think we can be proud of how we conducted ourselves in the tournament. But this is a new tournament and teams know each other now – overseas guys coming to South Africa know what to expect now.
“So, it’s about how quickly you can adapt to your structures and systems. There were a few areas in our game that we weren’t happy with, particularly towards the final. But we had time to reflect and adjust a few things that can take us to the next level.”
The Lions have lost some big names in the shape of flank Vincent Tshituka, prop Carlu Sadie and centres Burger Odendaal and Wandisile Simelane, among others – with Simelane now at the Bulls.
But they Johannesburg side will still be a competitive outfit, and their combative pack of forwards will be handful for the Bulls.
“We know the quality of the loosies that they have, and the leadership with Jaco Kriel, and I am sure that they will try to enforce themselves at the breakdown,” the 31-year-old Coetzee said.
“It’s always enjoyable playing at Ellis Park. It’s a great venue and great place to play rugby, and the Lions are a quality outfit as well.
“The bonus of the pre-season of six weeks is to blend in a bit, and they have settled in well. There is some quality talent coming through, and the new signings have really established themselves very well and blended quickly into the team environment.
“I’m very curious to see how they are going to go this weekend. It looks like they are enjoying it, and hopefully they can show that on the pitch.”