Jake White must be praised for playing, and not resting, as many of the Vodacom Bulls’ first-choice players as often as he has done this season, writes DEVIN HERMANUS.
The Bulls director of rugby took a huge gamble when he used a host of the same players over the course of three games in six days, especially with Mornay Smith, Sintu Manjezi, Jacques du Plessis and Johan Goosen all sidelined due to injury.
But the former Springbok boss’ bold call was vindicated after the Bulls’ nine-try demolition of Scarlets in the Vodacom United Rugby Championship. The victory came a mere 48 hours after the Bulls ended the Sharks’ unbeaten run in the Currie Cup, which was preceded by a tightly contested win over Munster.
The Bulls may have flirted with disaster in terms of player welfare, yet the rewards far outweigh the risk. White understands that there is no substitute for match practice, and that picking his strongest XV week in and week out only keeps his best players in a constant state of readiness.
How much sharper are the likes of Marcell Coetzee and Kurt-Lee Arendse than their counterparts at the Stormers, Sharks and Lions, who are running drills and hitting tackle shields while the Bulls are clattering into bodies and trying to break through defences?
White’s approach also allows young players, who tend to recover faster from fatigue or minor bumps and bruises, more opportunities to face off against quality opponents in top-flight games.
The 22-year-old Elrigh Louw has been a powerhouse at No 8 for the Bulls, while lock Ruan Nortje (22) has delivered similarly impressive performances.
Seasoned campaigners have also thrived being in back-to-back action, the evergreen Morne Steyn featuring at No 10 or on the bench in the URC and Currie Cup, as veteran teammate Lionel Mapoe says South African teams need to adapt and learn from some of their overseas opponents, who seamlessly juggle between competitions.
“You get these guys overseas playing more than 200 or 300 games for their clubs and you wonder where these guys rack up all these games, and this is exactly how it goes,” said the midfielder. “As South Africans we need to start getting used to playing weekday and weekend games.”
The Bulls are now challenging for a URC playoff spot, while Gert Smal’s men in blue aren’t giving up on their Currie Cup title without a fight, so White may still adopt a more pragmatic approach to regularly fielding full-strength sides – or not.
“We have to do what we can do. We didn’t do the fixtures, that is what we have been given. We are picking the best possible team from week to week,” the 2007 World Cup-winning coach said.
“I need to have them play as much as they can because from now on, the following year the games are going to get tougher and the turnarounds are going to be the same.”