• Bulls feature: Sleeping giant awakens

    After clinching the Vodacom Super Rugby Unlocked title, a revitalised Bulls side is targeting long-term success, writes JON CARDINELLI in the latest SA Rugby magazine.

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    Jake White hit the nail on the head when he compared the Bulls to Liverpool FC in the wake of the Super Rugby Unlocked tournament.

    Both clubs are celebrated around the world for past dynasties that left an indelible mark. Both are iconic brands that attract some of the world’s best players – or in the case of the Bulls, the best players in South Africa.

    And until fairly recently, both of these sporting giants couldn’t buy a trophy.

    In 2019, Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool won the Champions League for the first time since 2005. In 2020, the Reds won the Premier League title for the first time in three decades.

    The Bulls’ recent success in a makeshift, Covid-19 affected competition may seem minor by comparison. And yet, the Super Rugby Unlocked trophy represents the Pretoria franchise’s first major title victory in 10 years.

    Back in 2010, the Bulls were at the peak of the club rugby pyramid. With a crack coaching team and some of the world’s best players in tow, they won five Currie Cups and three Super Rugby titles between 2002 and 2010.

    After the 2010 Super 14 final in Soweto, Bulls boss Frans Ludeke assured the media that the franchise would continue to build. The South African powerhouse fell into disrepair over the next decade, however, losing top players, coaches and administrators on a regular basis.

    The results of that period best illustrate the decline. The Bulls qualified for the Super Rugby playoffs on just three occasions between 2011 and 2019. While they were the kings of the Currie Cup in the 2000s, they progressed to just one domestic final in the 2010s [see sidebar].

    What’s more, there were several false dawns and assurances by those in power that the Bulls were a team on the rise. Former All Blacks coach John Mitchell failed to take the team to the top, as did Pote Human – who was asked to do an ambulance job after Mitchell’s departure in late 2018.

    So much has changed at the Pretoria HQ in recent months. Billionaires Patrice Motsepe and Johann Rupert bought a controlling stake in the franchise. The administration has undergone a transformation, with former Lions MD Edgar Rathbone joining the franchise as CEO. White replaced Alan Zondagh as director of rugby and made some big calls regarding the coach and player personnel.

    Springbok legend-turned-TV-pundit Victor Matfield said the Currie Cup title is the Bulls’ to lose. Former Bok and Bulls scrumhalf Fourie du Preez – who openly criticised the previous administration for the lack of vision and growth – has joined White’s coaching team as a consultant. Matfield and Du Preez, key role players for the great Bulls team of the mid to late 2000s, recognise that something special is afoot at Loftus Versfeld.

    The decisions made over the past year have set the platform for sustainable success. While White’s Bulls haven’t scaled the heights of Klopp’s Liverpool just yet, they find themselves in a position to grow and improve.

    The Bulls have followed the national team’s lead in many ways. In 2019, Rassie Erasmus received the necessary support from his bosses at SA Rugby to build a squad and implement a game plan that would bring the Boks success at the Rugby Championship and World Cup. In the latter stages of 2020, White received similar backing to put the necessary structures in place at the Bulls.

    Several months back, a few eyebrows were raised after popular players such as Burger Odendaal, Rosko Specman and Manie Libbok were released from the Bulls. But when it emerged that a number of big names and promising youngsters were on White’s radar, the Bulls’ plan began to take shape.

    ‘The Bulls have won the lockdown,’ the more informed commentators declared after the squad lists were confirmed. Many more echoed this statement after they went on to win five of their six games and lift the trophy.

    White put together a squad with a range of skills. It was clear from the outset – given the balance between senior statesmen and exciting young stars – that he was determined to build a team that could succeed in the short and long term.

    Senior players such as Duane Vermeulen, Gio Aplon, Arno Botha, Nizaam Carr, Morne Steyn, Marcel van der Merwe and Jacques van Rooyen were brought back into the mix. White leaned on other Boks such as Trevor Nyakane and Jason Jenkins, as the Bulls went about rebuilding their forward reputation.

    At the same time, White was brave enough to back younger players and experiment with different combinations. Rookies such as fullback David Kriel, flank Elrigh Louw and utility forward Sintu Manjezi were backed alongside more experienced players. Cornal Hendricks – a wing in his previous life – was paired with the gifted Blitzbok Stedman Gans in midfield.

    White wanted the Bulls to harness their traditional strengths. The franchise certainly made a statement at the set pieces and breakdowns, and with Du Preez tutoring young halfbacks Ivan van Zyl and Embrose Papier, and Steyn converting forward dominance into territory via an accurate kicking game, the Bulls set the platform for a dangerous backline to strike.

    Indeed, there were times when they truly dazzled. After thrashing a Sharks side that was, before lockdown, one of the early favourites for the Super Rugby title, the Bulls put five tries past a renowned Stormers defence. They may have scored more if the game wasn’t stopped in the 64th minute due to lightning.

    White has enjoyed success as the head coach of the Boks, Brumbies and Montpellier. Watertight defence has been at the heart of those team’s successes, so it came as no surprise to see the Bulls excelling in that department and conceding just nine tries – less than two per game.

    On attack, the Bulls averaged 36 points and four tries per match. Again, it should be noted that they produced their best attacking displays against the Sharks and Stormers – teams that boast a number of Boks and a reputation for good defence.

    Some have dismissed the Bulls’ performances in a tournament ‘devoid of integrity’. Three Super Rugby Unlocked matches were cancelled after players tested positive for Covid-19 in the buildup. The draw certainly favoured the Bulls in terms of home matches – but then no side enjoyed the support of their fans as all the games were staged behind closed doors.

    The Bulls coaches and players have described the recent success as a starting point rather than a destination. The team has grown steadily over the past few months and should take things further in the Currie Cup.

    With the Cheetahs surplus to Pro16 requirements, the Bulls may bolster their player stocks with the likes of two-time World Cup winner Frans Steyn and another promising loose forward in Junior Pokomela. Jenkins – the lineout kingpin – is expected to rejoin the Bulls after his club commitments in Japan have been fulfilled.

    ‘I’m fully aware that it isn’t the full-fledged Super Rugby tournament but if you go back to where we were six or seven months ago, I don’t think anybody would have given us a chance to win this trophy,’ White said.

    ‘There is a massive amount of happiness, relief and confidence that we take out of winning this. A lot of these guys have waited a long time. Winning creates a habit. Now we know the feeling and hopefully we can go for the second round.

    ‘I signed for this franchise on the basis that the Bulls are a sleeping giant. This is one of the best franchises in the world. This is the Liverpool or the Manchester United of rugby. This was one of the reasons I came here, I wanted to get this union to win some silverware.

    ‘I don’t take anything away from what we have done in the past, but even the guys who played in those glory years would be very happy to see that there is at least a young group of players who are winning something.’

    Vermeulen, the Bulls skipper who was arguably the top performer across the Super Rugby Unlocked tournament, agreed with his coach.

    There will be further opportunities for the Bulls to impress and achieve in the Currie Cup, a terrific chance to make a statement in a new-look Pro 16 and a chance to force an upset when they host the British & Irish Lions on 17 July 2021.

    Beyond that, the Bulls may well emulate Liverpool and win more trophies of substance.

    ‘We can close this chapter, but there are many more to go,’ the decorated Bok No 8 said. ‘Our book isn’t finished yet.’

    BULLISH ABOUT THE FUTURE

    The Blue Bulls beat the Lions 48-33 in the U21 Championship final to claim their second consecutive junior title. Wing Stravino Jacobs scored a brace in the decider to finish the tournament as the top try-scorer (7).

    Bulls U21 coach Hayden Groepes has relished the opportunity to work with director of rugby Jake White. Both men have spoken about building a young team that can excel at senior level – and win big trophies – in the coming years.

    ‘Jake has been actively involved with us in his duties as director of rugby,’ said Groepes. ‘We’ve synchronised our structures, allowing the younger players to gain some experience at senior level and then seamlessly slot in again when they return to us.’

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    Craig Lewis