Bulls caught in perfect storm, but don’t panic

The Bulls were feeble in the inaugural Rainbow Cup final. Don’t read too much into it, though, writes ZELIM NEL.

Benetton smoked the Bulls 35-8 in Treviso on Saturday night and in doing so delivered a gut-punch to a South African rugby community that had stocked the bar fridge to celebrate a victorious European landing.

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The Rainbow Cup SA champs were never in the contest, upstaged by the likes of 33-year-old former Stormers halfback Dewaldt Duvenage and discarded Bulls hooker Corniel Els, who scored a try and came very close to scoring a second.

Having watched the Bulls stomp to five wins in six matches en route to clinching the Rainbow Cup SA title, one could almost hear the hiss of pressurised air escaping from the balloon of confidence propping up local rugby fanatics.

After all, Jake White’s Bulls had won three trophies since his arrival in Pretoria from Japan last year, including Super Rugby Unlocked and the union’s first Currie Cup trophy since 2009.

By contrast, Benetton went winless in 16 matches during the 2020/21 PRO14 campaign before recovering to win four of five matches in the bridging competition to next year’s United Rugby Championship.

While it seems like a dire portent of what lies ahead for SA teams, it’s far more likely that time will reveal this result was an outlier.

The perception of the Bulls’ resurgence is that White is seated on a bottomless war chest and used it to acquire the best weapons to shoot his way to three titles. Indeed, White’s signings included Springboks such as Gio Aplon, Morne Steyn, Nizaam Carr, Arno Botha, Duane Vermeulen, Marcel van der Merwe and Marcell Coetzee.

But the real value in the story of the Bulls’ recent successes is that it has been achieved by leaning on the next man up.

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Stedman Gans was a relative newbie to senior fifteens rugby when White arrived and deployed him at outside centre – he produced quality performances with a consistency that has eluded several of his Blitzboks predecessors. When Gans broke down, White replaced him with converted scrumhalf Marco Jansen van Vuren. And the Bulls kept on winning.

David Kriel (22) seamlessly transitioned from being a junior prospect at Western Province to replacing Gio Aplon in the No 15 jersey at Loftus Versfeld.

Unheralded props Gerhard Steenekamp (24) and Mornay Smith (23) were handed starting jobs to prepare for the expected departure of Lizo Gqoboka and Trevor Nyakane to international duty. And the Bulls kept on winning.

Elrigh Louw (21) suddenly stood out in the congested crowd filing out of SA’s loose forward factory, and lock Ruan Nortje (22) made a similarly rapid rise to prominence. And few would have known much about Stravino Jacobs (21) in 2020, but the outside back has since established a reputation as a powerful finisher.

White underlined his quality as a coach and talent spotter by continuing to win while making big calls to back unproven players in key positions. But it was inevitable that this Bulls group would eventually have to lose to grow into a more formidable unit, and on Saturday events converged to make that happen in emphatic fashion.

The Bulls looked flat, like they had travelled to Italy in economy class and fielded several players treading on foreign soil as senior professionals for the first time.

The error-rate was so high it was comedic. Chris Smith struggled deputising for Steyn at flyhalf. Coetzee and Cornal Hendricks, a stalwart of the Bulls renaissance, couldn’t hold onto the ball.

The lineout lacked timing, and the unbalanced back row of Carr, Nortje and Coetzee were exposed by a Benetton pack that wouldn’t let the Bulls get away with light rucks, which made the referee a friend of the Italians in the stands.

Benetton were well-rested, slick and tactically sharp, but most of all they had timed their best performance for the same day as the Bulls were caught in a perfect storm.

South African teams will certainly have to be better to win in Europe. They will be.

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Craig Lewis