Bulls: Is recent form a valid cause for concern at Loftus Versfeld?

Bulls coach Jake White during the post match press conference, Pretoria Credit: Alamy
Bulls coach Jake White during the post match press conference, Pretoria Credit: Alamy

The Bulls have recently seen their fortunes rapidly change after their promising start to the season fell away to three losses on the bounce.

Director of rugby Jake White is one of the great innovators of the sport and is always looking for any edge he can get. The former World Cup-winning coach has had great success during his time with the Bulls and, at one point, held all the domestic trophies in the country, including those from age group levels.

Given all the success at the union, one would expect White to easily be able to lift the side out of their slump. However, is there a cause for concern at Loftus Versfeld?

Number crunch

White’s men had one of the best starts in the United Rugby Championship, losing only two of their opening nine games and winning the rest. The impressive start included a powerful 40-27 win over a then-struggling Sharks side.

During that period, it seemed as though the Bulls had managed to kick on from their runners-up finish to the Stormers in the grand final last season to find another gear and potentially go one better during this campaign.

However, this season there is a battle on two fronts as the Pretoria men are also playing in the Champions Cup, where White made the bold decision of temporarily splitting squads to rest first-choice stars for the URC and letting fringe players have a go in Europe.

The decision surprised many but initially came off as a masterstroke after the youthful side beat Lyon in Pretoria 42-36. White rewarded the players’ efforts by travelling to Exeter Chiefs with the same squad but were humbled 44-14 on the night – the first of three significant losses.

The Bulls had done well enough without their first-string side, and the decision seemed to have paid off in the first stage. Now what was required was to take advantage of the fresh legs and outplay their opponents in the prioritised URC.

That did not go according to plan. Instead, the Stormers defeated the Bulls 37-27 in a frenetic yet classic north-south derby in front of a vociferous crowd at Cape Town Stadium.

It would go from bad to worse as the period White had targeted engulfed the Bulls, who were eaten alive by a rampant Sharks side 47-20 in Durban last weekend.

The Bulls have shown poor discipline in those three big losses where they conceded a whopping 128 points at a -67 points difference – figures that are simply not good enough for a team of that calibre.

During the Pretoria men’s opening 10 games, including the Lyon win, the team conceded 105 penalties at an average of 10.5 penalties per game, which is a very respectable statistic. However, in the big three losses, the Bulls conceded 48 penalties at an average of 16 per game, mainly due to set-piece and tight five pressure.

Outspoken White

The Bulls boss has been a very outspoken character throughout his time in Pretoria but arguably never more so than now. Granted, his side has a difficult schedule to deal with as they have a trip to Wales to play the Dragons this weekend, followed by Exeter in Pretoria, then another trip to Europe to face Lyon away and a clash against Scarlets in Llanelli.

“We fly via Dubai to London and then bus to Wales to play the Dragons next Friday night in the URC,” White said.

“Then we come back to play Exeter at home in the EPCR Champions Cup.

“We’ve also got Lyon and Scarlets away this month. It’s the toughest block, six to seven weeks, for us.

“Not that the others aren’t tough, but we have six away games out of seven, which involves a lot of travel.

“This will be a massive character test for both coaches and players to start the New Year with a bit of energy and get both our campaigns on track.”

But even before the tricky schedule, White had a lot to say about the prospects of a South African side winning the Champions Cup.

“People need to appreciate that for you to win the Heineken Cup, it means on three consecutive weekends you’ll [probably] have to beat Toulouse, Leinster and La Rochelle,” he said.

“I don’t want to be a defeatist but being realistic, do we have the squads in South Africa that can match La Rochelle, Leinster and Toulouse on three consecutive weekends away from home?

“That does not mean you go into every game saying it doesn’t count or that the URC is more important, not at all.”

Verdict

White is a very intelligent rugby mind who is, at times, radical. However, brilliance does not always fit the mould.

The tactician clearly has a powerful long-term vision for the club, typified by splitting squads and taking risks, some that pay off and others that do not.

The bottom line is that the Bulls will be better off in a couple of seasons because of White’s holistic approach over the last two seasons.

However, White needs to get the balance between the future and present right. Good things in sports only happen to teams that are winning. One can put the blocks in place and plan for long-term success, but if not enough games are won in the here and now, the idealised success is never realised – the same trap that caught Eddie Jones.

Ultimately, there is not a massive cause for concern, yet. Provided the Bulls stabilise results and make a solid charge later in the season, then White’s plans will fall into place, making the Bulls in a couple of seasons a very scary prospect. However, things are looking more precarious than he would have liked, and he would not want to risk losing the faith of the players and/or fans.

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