Almost 18 months before John Mitchell was recruited to rescue the ailing Bulls, Xander Janse van Rensburg – the Bulls’ high performance manager – told me candidly in his Loftus office that the union wanted to be like the Lions.
He wanted the Bulls to not only rise up from the ashes like their neighbours did in terms of administration but also develop an exciting, viable brand of rugby.
That was still when Nollis Marais was preparing for his first campaign as a Super Rugby coach.
Mitchell has undoubtedly developed his own blueprint since then but the overall objective can be considered the same: the Bulls want to make the same impact as the Lions.
It’s therefore not particularly unrealistic to draw comparisons with the two sides’ respective development.
And if one applies that logic, the Bulls really don’t have much to panic about after an unrewarding tour to Australasia.
When the Lions – after reaching the final of the 2014 Currie Cup – went into the 2015 season with higher expectations, they – like the Bulls – lost four of their first five matches.
Everyone else believed the revolution had stalled except coach Johan Ackermann and co.
They kept believing in themselves, won eight of their last 11 matches and finished three log points from a playoff spot.
The platform had been laid and we all know what happened after that…
Mitchell is making the same noises.
He’s under no illusion that his side will be a big player in this year’s tournament – after all, this is still an inexperienced side.
Yet the former All Blacks mentor believes the future is bright and as long as the players do too, everything will continue to improve.
However, here’s the interesting thing about the Bulls for me: they might actually be in an even better position than the Lions for glory.
When the Lions built their brand, they truly did it with no-name brands.
Their stars like Warren Whiteley, Jaco Kriel, Andries Coetzee, Courtnall Skosan, Ruan Combrinck, Malcolm Marx, Ruan Dreyer and Franco Mostert gradually emerged.
Elton Jantjies (who made his Bok debut in 2012 already) also took a while to add to that cap.
And, to be brutally honest, some of them might not be world-class talents anyway.
That doesn’t make them poor players, it just acknowledges that they work well within the Lions system but can’t quite make the step up to international level.
In contrast, the Bulls – in this early stage of their cycle – already have potentially world-class players in their setup.
Handre Pollard and Jesse Kriel are on the verge of becoming seasoned internationals, Lood de Jager is a former South African Player-of-the-Year and has been outstanding since last year’s tour to Europe and Warrick Gelant can become a dazzling fullback.
In fact, on Tuesday Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus called up 11 of Mitchell’s squad to participate in a national “alignment” camp next month.
That’s a pretty impressive number for a side in such a development phase.
And that’s where the Bulls could be in a prime position to – in two years – win Super Rugby instead of being bridesmaids like the Lions.
They have potentially world-class players to push the product for 95% to 100% in a final.