Bulls will need a near-flawless performance in Dublin to topple Leinster
The Stormers and Bulls have made it to the semi-finals of the inaugural United Rugby Championship. But will the journey end there?
On paper, it appears that the Bulls’ run in the United Rugby Championship (URC) will come to an abrupt end against European giants Leinster in Dublin this 1o June.
Leinster are European rugby’s close equivalent to the Crusaders in Super Rugby. Leinster have won eight PRO12/14 titles, the predecessor to URC and are four-time European champions. This year, they lost the European Champions Cup final in injury time to French club La Rochelle, but they bounced back by beating Glasgow 76-14 in the URC quarterfinals at the weekend.
In the URC and before that in the PRO14 and PRO12, Leinster have only lost 21 of 225 home matches with five draws, which means they win 90% of the time at home. The size of the Bulls’ task is monumental.
Earlier in the season, Jake White’s team suffered a 31-3 round one defeat against Leinster at the Aviva Stadium. The Bulls were at virtually full strength for that game last September, but they have certainly grown as a team through the course of the URC campaign.
On that occasion, a veteran such as hooker Bismarck du Plessis started but now Johan Grobbelaar is the undisputed first-choice hooker with youngster Jan-Hendrik Wessels the back-up. It’s a symbol of the Bulls’ growth, which might not yet be enough to topple Leinster on their own patch when they meet at the RDS Arena.
“The blend between youth and experience is part of the development of the team,” White said after the Bulls secured a 30-27 quarterfinal win over the Sharks.
“Putting Bismarck in now and maybe playing an older guy at fullback won’t teach me anything. Part of this journey with this group is that they must become senior players too.
“I’ll only know (how much we’ve grown) on Friday night — that’s the answer. We will see how good we are then. Have we grown or gone backwards? I’d like to believe we have gotten better.
“This group of players have only been together for two years. It’s irrelevant how old they are — we had two 19-year-olds in the 23-man squad (against the Sharks). These guys are playing beyond their ages and beyond their time as a group together.
“Next week we have the ultimate test against Leinster. Sometimes their front row has more international caps than our whole team together.
“I’m very proud of what we’ve done. We’ve achieved far more than people expected and probably our own players expected. That’s the exciting thing about sport — we get to measure ourselves against an international side that has dominated Europe. Whatever is going to happen, we will get a great feel of where we are as a group.”
Flawless performance needed
The Bulls lost three and won three of their six matches in Europe during the campaign, with their two heaviest defeats coming in Ireland. White is an optimist, but he is also a realist and knows that to beat Leinster, which is close to a full-strength Ireland national team, his side will have to produce a near-perfect game and a close to flawless performance.
Key to that will be stopping Leinster from starting well. The Bulls need to take the crowd out of the game and also stop the home team from building early momentum. In the Champions Cup final, La Rochelle scored the first try of the game, which ensured there was never more than a score between the sides, which allowed the French club to win it at the death.
“The one thing I learned from that game was that Leinster are beatable, and that gives us confidence,” White said. “However, you can’t let them start well because you’ll end up playing catch-up rugby. Against a team that good, it’s hard to catch up against them.
“Leinster have been the one team that scores more points in the first 20 minutes than anyone else. Through circumstance and maybe through Leinster errors, La Rochelle held them to a reasonable score at half-time.
“There were three or four opportunities where Leinster was coming at a hell of a speed, but fell victim to one or two bad options. Had they scored, as they do against most teams, they would have gone 21-0 up, and that’s hard to win from.”
But White needs look no further than his own team’s plucky performance against a Springbok-laden Sharks unit for inspiration. The Bulls do not have one player currently in the Bok first choice 23.
“The Sharks had nine Springboks and five Rugby World Cup winners, so it was always going to be a tough ask,” White said. “The message was simple because, in the first half, we hardly played and had the ball. When we did, we looked good enough.
“The message was for the guys to start playing, get their hands on the ball and have a go. When we did, we looked outstanding at times. That the game went down to the wire is not surprising because that’s how knockout games are going to be, and they’ll be decided by small moments.”
White won’t mind it going down to the wire again in Dublin this weekend. DM