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Bulls on Dupont alert as they face mission impossible against Stade Toulousain

Bulls on Dupont alert as they face mission impossible against Stade Toulousain
Scrumhalf Antoine Dupont (centre) is the biggest star in the game and one of the best players in the world. Stopping him is vital for the Bulls when they meet in a Champions Cup last 16 match on Sunday. (Photo: Antonio Borga/Eurasia Sport Images/Getty Images)

The Bulls face a daunting task in the last 16 of the Champions Cup against the French giants while the Stormers are wary of English side Harlequins.

Jake White’s Bulls are in a rut. They seemed to have lost their winning mojo and now they face the superb Toulouse, in Toulouse, in a European Champions Cup last 16 match. It can’t get much tougher for a side out of form, let alone low on confidence.

But the contest will also serve as a major motivation for the Bulls, and particularly for some of their Springbok players. Toulouse are stacked with current French stars.

The brilliant and bewitching scrumhalf Antoine Dupont, is of course, the biggest star in world rugby today. He never has a bad game. His performances oscillate between excellent and oh my god…

In front of him there is a Les Blues-laden pack with prop Cyril Baille, hooker Julian Marchand, lock Thibauld Flament and France flanks Anthony Jelonch and Francois Cros and Bok loose forward Rynhardt Elstadt to provide a platform from which Dupont can weave his magic.

And the little general has ample support out back too, with the silky Romaine Ntamack at flyhalf and the points glutton Thomas Ramos at fullback.

It’s a daunting challenge, but the ever-confident White sounded like a man whose team were on top of the world, instead in a slump that has yielded eight straight losses in all competitions.

That is his strength. White’s confidence never wavers and if the players can take some of the bullishness into the match themselves, an unlikely upset could be on the cards.

Rynhardt Elstadt of Toulouse

Rynhardt Elstadt of Toulouse passes the ball during the Heineken Champions Cup match against Ulster. (Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images)

Learning from Leinster

Last season the Bulls, admittedly in a better run of form at the time, went to the RDS Stadium in Dublin and beat the seemingly unbeatable Leinster in the United Rugby Championship (URC) semi-finals. They have to tap into that mindset again.

But they also practically have to limit Dupont’s influence on the game. Everyone knows that, but few have been able to do it over an entire match.

Dupont is human and he can be smothered for large parts of games, but like all the great players, he finds a way in tough circumstances to put his stamp on the contest. He only needs half a chance to swing the momentum of a match. Denying him that half chance over 80-plus minutes is vital.

“I am sure that there are ways. I am not going to divulge those ways,” White said when asked about limiting Dupont’s influence on a game.

“When I was coaching the Springboks, one game that comes to mind is when we played Argentina and they had Agustin Pichot at scrumhalf.

“He was as important to Argentina, as Antoine Dupont is to France and Toulouse. I think the one way negative things happen to any player is by building pressure.

“Pressure changes the actions of players. It happens in all sport. You watch what pressure does to golfers or any team in the back end of a competition. You watch what the last 10 minutes of a game do to decision-making.

“That’s the key. We have to build pressure. We need to find ways in which the whole team collectively can put pressure on the opposition. That will filter to the decision-makers, as it does to us.”

Easier said than done of course, but it’s not wrong.

The Bulls were excellent for the first 60 minutes against Ulster in Belfast in a URC match last week. They applied pressure and rattled the home team. But ill discipline in the last quarter, coupled with a slight drop in performance when the bench was cleared, cost them victory.

White will use the first 60 minutes of that contest to motivate his players. The positives in that match, barring the result, outweighed the negatives. The secret is performing at that level for the entirety of the clash. The best sides do that.

Bulls head coach Jake White

Bulls head coach Jake White remains positive that his side can surprise French giants Toulouse in Toulouse on Sunday.(Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile/Gallo Images)

Learning from history

“We can find confidence in the past. Ironically, something that happened this time last year, when we beat Leinster [in the URC semi-final], that Leinster side beat Toulouse in the Champions Cup semi-final. We know we can do it,” White said.

“If we play well enough, there is no reason we can’t get a result. Losing creates doubt, and winning creates confidence. We have to keep believing. When our results turn, we have to appreciate winning more.

“Last year we played the whole Irish team that went on to win the Six Nations. We don’t have the same list of international players. There is no use in trying to control things we can’t control.

“We want to be part of this competition for a long time. For example, Racing has never won this competition and they’ve had incredible players. Some teams can play for a long time and never get close.

“We are playing Toulouse with Dupont, one of the best in the world. France are favourites to win the World Cup. This is a French team playing at home in a year of a home World Cup, which will add to their motivation. We can’t get away from that. We can only prepare as well as we can prepare.”

Solid Stormers

By contrast to the Bulls’ problems, the Stormers are cruising in the URC, where they are second on the standings hosting a home Champions Cup match this weekend when Harlequins visit.

The English side contains England stars such as flyhalf Marcus Smith, scrumhalf Danny Care, prop Joe Marler and Bok bruiser Andre Esterhuizen in the midfield.

Harlequins’ form, a bit like the Bulls, has not been good this season with only one win in the domestic competition since the start of January.

Which is causing Stormers coach John Dobson to furrow his brow deeply because they remain dangerous.

Like his Stormers team, Harlequins like to play with ball in hand and attack often. When it comes off, they can be unstoppable, as they were against Exeter recently.

“I saw them put 40 points on Exeter a couple of weeks ago. Harlequins were English champions a couple of years ago and the way they came back in that final was incredible. I think they deserve enormous credit for the type of rugby they play. To play rugby like this in English conditions the way they do, it’s amazing,” Dobson said.

Stormers head coach John Dobson

Stormers head coach John Dobson is not reading too much into Harlequins’ struggles this season. The Stormers host the English club in a Champions Cup last 16 encounter on Saturday. (Photo: Carl Fourie/Gallo Images)

“It is a high-risk game and some days it doesn’t happen for them. But to play this style in southwest London, it’s great for rugby. If they get quick ball and click in our conditions, they can put us under real pressure defensively. I just hope they don’t click.”

The Stormers are nearly back to full strength and will have an expected crowd of more than 30,000 roaring them on at DHL Stadium.

Despite the season going without many hitches, they have won no silverware yet and Saturday’s contest represents an opportunity to advance to the position of being one of Europe’s elite.

“This season has in some ways exceeded last season in terms of building depth and cementing our position,” said Dobson. “Sitting here right now, we are 18 points clear in the SA shield. We could win nothing trophy-wise, which is a reality.

“The missing piece would be this Saturday. This puts you in the top eight of Europe with the likes of Saracens, La Rochelle and Toulouse. It would make it a really successful season, which is why Saturday is really important for us.” DM


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