The Bulls finished on a high by hammering the Rebels 40-7 to end in ninth place on the log, second in the South African Conference, beaten only by the playoffs-bound Sharks. But they are painfully aware that they were just one win short of joining the KwaZulu-Natalians in the knockout rounds.
Before restoring some pride against the Rebels, the Bulls suffered successive defeats to the Lions and Stormers, as well as being beaten by the Cheetahs earlier in the season.
“Although we enjoyed the way we finished, there were some vital games where we didn’t get the result we needed. But for one or two losses, we would have easily made the playoffs. But we haven’t played well enough away from home, it wasn’t good enough and there are no excuses.
“You need special performances to win away from home and the margins are small. We created some big moments and finishing those off is how you win. We have a good squad, some great players who will definitely get better.
“But we are obviously looking at some players. In 80% of the games, nine of the starting line-up had not played SuperRugby before this year. Special players make special things happen, but I think I must stop there,” Ludeke said after the match.
The point about acquiring some marquee players was rammed home, though, by captain Victor Matfield.
“To win this competition, you need two or three players that would make a World XV and five or six Springboks. We have youngsters who can become world-class and we finished within seven points of the Waratahs in Sydney so we’re not that far off,” Matfield said.
The Bulls, beset by the overseas exodus and poor recruitment, tackled this SuperRugby campaign with too many players that were merely of Currie Cup quality. Some of the youngsters are certainly developing rapidly, but the negotiations with Adriaan Strauss should solve a problem at hooker and the management really should be on the phone to a quality openside flank as well.
The areas of strength looking to the future are amongst the backs – the midfield, with Jan Serfontein and JJ Engelbrecht possibly the future Springbok centre pairing and the most exciting young flyhalf in the country in Handre Pollard.
Up front, so much still depends on Matfield and, with fellow lock Paul Willemse heading to France, prop Marcel van der Merwe and injured flank Jacques du Plessis are the only young forwards with genuine international aspirations.
The injury-enforced absence of experienced forwards such as Pierre Spies, Deon Stegmann, Dewald Potgieter, Flip van der Merwe and Arno Botha has also greatly hindered the Bulls.
“We’ve lost a lot of loose forwards this year and half-a-dozen of our players are still U21, so if they come through, we will do well,” Matfield said.
It was also encouraging to see Francois Hougaard shrug off a season of grief for him personally and start to look like his old exuberant self on the left wing, while the Bulls looked a slicker outfit on attack thanks to the service of Piet van Zyl at scrumhalf. Springbok considerations have obviously played a part in Ludeke’s selection at nine this year, but perhaps the Bulls will start 2015 as they ended the 2014 competition.
“The new combination worked well. Francois had a lot of energy and looked for work, he was always sniffing for gaps, and Piet van Zyl played very well too.
“Francois’ first choice is to play nine and Piet was unfortunately injured while we were on tour. Only time will tell, but it’s great to keep both involved and I think it was satisfying seasons for both,” Ludeke said.
If all the young talent can continue to grow and the senior players (boosted by a couple of acquisitions) can stay uninjured, then the time of grieving at Loftus Versfeld may be over very soon.