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UNITED RUGBY CHAMPIONSHIP

Peaking at the White time — Bulls poised for URC glory at last

Peaking at the White time — Bulls poised for URC glory at last
Akker van der Merwe of the Bulls is tackled during their United Rugby Championship match against Munster at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria on 20 April. (Photo: Gordon Arons / Gallo Images / Getty Images)

The Bulls finished second in the Championship pool phase. Can they win it?

There are no guarantees in sport but there are eras and trends, and for the Bulls the pattern has been an upward curve since 2020. The goal is a return to the glory years of 2007-2010 when the franchise won three Super Rugby titles in four years.

The Bulls are into the semifinals of the United Rugby Championship (URC) after a 30-23 win over Benetton. They face Leinster at Loftus in the last four.

Their patchy performance against Benetton notwithstanding, the form they have displayed in 2024 suggests a team that has grown in four years and is close to slotting all the pieces into place. It now comes down to handling knockout pressure and holding their nerve as they enter the business end of the campaign with a home quarterfinal against Italian club Benetton.

“The Bulls board understood this project will need time. They want to build something special at Loftus and they understand it won’t be waving a wand and results will come,” director of rugby Jake White told Daily Maverick in 2020.

“I have presented the vision of making Loftus the high-performance capital of South African rugby. We want to be the best in every department, from analysis to conditioning and everything in between. That ambition is shared by everyone.”

And the Bulls have meticulously closed in on that goal.

It’s already been a year of strong achievements for the Bulls, during which they have laid down several important markers.

Perhaps the biggest psychological hurdle the Bulls needed to overcome was to beat the Stormers. Entering the third season of the URC the Bulls had lost six times in a row to their old foes, including the 2022 final.

That losing run extended to seven defeats when they went down 26-20 to the Stormers in round eight of the 2024 campaign. It was a setback, but when the Bulls finally secured a win over the Stormers – a 40-22 thrashing in round 11 at Loftus – another important target was reached.

Maturing team

Although they made the 2022 URC final, in the inaugural year of the tournament when every team was creating an identity in the new landscape, this year the Bulls feel like a more mature team.

The scar tissue they developed over three years in URC has hardened them for what will (possibly) be a tough few weeks.

But they have a lot of positivity to draw on. The Bulls set a try-scoring record for the season. Their 85 season tries is one more than Leinster’s mark last season, and seven more than the men from Pretoria managed in season two.

The Bulls are also the top side when it comes to points scored with 639, which is also a tournament record, eclipsing the 613 they scored in their first season of the URC.

The Bulls are also second in offloads, third in metres gained and fourth in clean breaks, showing what an exceptional team they are on attack.

They have genuine superstars such as Kurt-Lee Arendse, Willie le Roux and Canan Moodie in their lineup and amazing newcomers such as No 8 Cameron Hanekom.

Bulls

Bulls coach Jake White. (Photo: Dan Mullan / Getty Images)

The mixture of youth, explosiveness, experience, blue-collar toilers and a sprinkling of genius has resulted in an intoxicating concoction that can reach ethereal heights.

But the flip side is that, just occasionally, the side loses direction and plays a poor 15 or 20 minutes within a game. That’s manageable over the course of a season, but potentially lethal in a playoff.

Pure magic

Despite the odd lapse of concentration, White has carefully crafted a potentially championship-winning group after four years of tweaking and tinkering.

He joined the franchise just before Covid struck in 2020, which was a difficult time for many reasons. The pandemic led to South Africa’s exit from Super Rugby with no certain course in view.

As it turned out, South Africa aligned with the northern hemisphere and the URC was born.

The first two years were played through lockdowns and bio-bubbles, making it a hugely taxing environment for all teams, but especially for a new coach, in a new city, trying to build a new team.

White was mandated to return the Bulls to winning ways. They were trophyless between 2011 and 2020, and his ability to revive ailing franchises was why co-owners Patrice Motsepe and Johann Rupert acquired the 2007 World Cup-winning coach’s services.

White has a proven track record at every level he has coached. The SA under-21 team went from mediocre to World Champions on his watch.

The Springboks went from rabble in 2004 when he took over as national coach to Tri-Nations champions in his first year at the helm and ultimately to 2007 World Cup winners.

The Brumbies were 11th when he took them on in 2012. By 2013 they were in the Super Rugby final. And he also took the Sharks into the Super Rugby semifinals in 2014 after winning the SA Conference title.

Three years at French club Montpellier delivered a European Challenge Cup title and consistent French Top 14 semifinals.

At the Bulls, he has presided over two Currie Cup titles, a Super Rugby lockdown win and appearances in the Rainbow Cup and URC finals as well as winning the 2024 SA Shield for being the best local team in the tournament.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Roos and Moodie blows for Stormers and Bulls respectively before URC quarterfinals

Those are all signs of progress, but the next logical step is to capture the URC title and 2024 presents a great opportunity. When he was appointed in 2020, White stressed he was in for the long haul to deliver silverware to Loftus. And he has been true to his word.

“Part of being a coach is aligning yourself with teams where you feel you can make a difference and where the leadership shares a similar outlook,” White said.

“There are a lot of aspects of a challenge to see how you can fit into an organisation and vice versa. You look at the player base and the feeder system and you look at the club’s history.

Read more in Daily Maverick: South Africa’s URC safari is pushing the tournament to new heights

“The Bulls have great tradition and have been one of the strongest rugby clubs in the world. They have won numerous Currie Cups and three Super Rugby titles and produced dozens of Springboks.

“Rugby is in the air in Pretoria; it’s everywhere you go. There are 47 rugby fields in Lynwood Road (which runs past Loftus) alone, so you realise what kind of rugby set-up you’re moving into.”

The question is, what phase are the Bulls moving into? Stretching ahead as title winners and URC leaders, or remaining a member of the chasing pack? DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R35.

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