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Jake White’s Bulls rebuild is taking shape in Super Rugby Unlocked

New Bulls coach Jake White says the Bulls 'are very, very happy that we can make the Bulls supporters proud again'. (Photo by Lee Warren/Gallo Images)
By Craig Ray
08 Nov 2020 0

The Bulls have one hand on the Super Rugby Unlocked title after a gritty win over the Lions at Ellis Park, sparking early optimism that the Jake White project is taking shape.

When Jake White was appointed as Director of Rugby at the Bulls in March, the once-famous Pretoria franchise had won just a single Super Rugby match out of seven in 2020. Then the tournament was abandoned.

White joined the franchise at a difficult time as the union were on to their third coach in three years – Pote Human – who came after John Mitchell and Nollis Marais before him. All had failed to bring success.

Human was let go in May in one of White’s first major acts as director of rugby. During lockdown, White decided that there was no need to keep Human on with no rugby being played.

On 1 May the veteran coach agreed to immediate termination of his contract. He was paid out, but White decided that he may as well start coaching the team he was planning to coach in 2021 anyway.

“There is no guarantee of rugby between now and October, when Pote’s contract ends,” White told Daily Maverick at the time. “I want to start with a clean slate, which I told Pote, and, as a result, I couldn’t guarantee an extension of his contract.

 “I wanted to work with him this year, but the coronavirus didn’t give us that chance. I said to Pote that because we haven’t had the chance to work together, and I haven’t had the opportunity to spend time with this group of players, it would be better to start fresh by bringing in some new players and coaches, whenever that might be.”

Since then former Bulls players such as Bok wing Travis Ismaiel and Bok lock Jason Jenkins have returned and new youngsters like Kurt-Lee Arendse are coming through the ranks. The project that White embarked on has started to take shape.

The Bulls need to beat the Pumas in the final match of the hastily established Super Rugby Unlocked in a fortnight to win the title.

The Bulls are on 19 points after five games, having won four. Saturday’s 30-25 win over the Lions has put them six points clear of the Stormers and Sharks, who both have played one fewer game. The destiny of the trophy is highly likely to be in the Bulls’ hands.

After a scratchy win against Griquas and a loss to the Cheetahs the Bulls have scored three bonus-point victories in a row, which included massive 41-14 and 39-6 home wins over the Sharks and Stormers, respectively.

“It is always tough to play away, so to get an away win is fantastic,” White told the media after the Lions game. “I am very proud of the way we came back in the second half. It was like two different teams played.

“It is not an excuse but what happened was that we had a lot of disruptions. We lost our hooker (Johan Grobbelaar) on Thursday and then we lost our flank in the first five minutes of the game. Then we lost both props,” he added.

“A lot was asked of the bench and the guys that came on. We know that they are a relatively young group of players in terms of the time they have spent together. So, to get them to play 40 minutes like that, when they haven’t really spent much time on the field as a unit is obviously very pleasing.

With entry to European rugby in mind, White is trying to commit some key players to longer term contracts at the Bulls.

“It was a tough game and I am obviously very pleased that we have managed to get the result. Sometimes you need to win these kinds of games ugly as well. It is not always going to be one-sided,” White said.

Super Rugby Unlocked is, of course, a hastily put together tournament being contested under difficult Covid-19 conditions and after a lengthy time off. Reading too much into it is almost as bad as dismissing it altogether. The truth lies somewhere in between.

The points gained in these six matches will be carried over into the Currie Cup, the second phase of the post-lockdown, return-to-play season. The Currie Cup promises to be a much stronger competition as all teams improve with more time on the field.

Winning Super Rugby Unlocked will be a boost for the Bulls, and the points gained a good foundation in the Currie Cup, but ultimately the next three months are about preparing for entry into PRO16.

With entry to European rugby in mind, White is trying to commit some key players to longer term contracts at the Bulls.

Jenkins, who has briefly returned from Japan, is on a short-term contract in Pretoria. He is a man White wants to secure for the next three years as a major part of his vision, but Jenkins will have to return to Japan soon to complete his commitments there. The Japanese season starts in January and he will be away until at least May 2021.

“Jason has just kept growing and growing,” White said. “He said in the changeroom that he has been at the Bulls for about six years and this is a special group of players. He is enjoying his rugby.

“Hopefully, we can lure him into recommitting after his contract (expires) to coming back to the Bulls. He is obviously a very important player to us. He has got better and better the more he has played,” he added.

“We will see. Obviously, he is going to head off to Japan. I have to say, Toyota Verblitz – the club I coached – were kind enough to release him as a loan player to us. I am very thankful for that. He has to head back soon. They start their pre-season and he can slot in and hopefully start playing in January for Toyota.” DM

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