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Ken Borland


Bulls dominate the battle of sibling rivals … but change has to come at Loftus

Posted on May 15, 2023 by Ken

Eighthman Elrigh Louw was prominent as the Bulls rebounded with a convincing victory over the tough Griquas team in Kimberley.

Given that many of the Griquas players have come through the junior ranks at Loftus Versfeld, last weekend’s Currie Cup clash against the Bulls in Kimberley had all the hallmarks of a sibling rivalry – the big brother from Pretoria trying to quell the upstart youngsters.

Except that the Bulls have been a meek facsimile of their former fearsome selves this season and the quarterfinal exit, via another heavy defeat at the hands of the Stormers, caused much soul-searching at Loftus Versfeld.

The Currie Cup is now their last chance to pull together and try and get something meaningful out of their troubled season. Which makes them dangerous, desperate adversaries, and Griquas had their hands full against a near URC-strength team, going down 40-20. That Bulls side, when on-song, was good enough to finish sixth in the URC and make the last 16 of the Champions Cup.

The fact that the Bulls churn out so many talented youngsters year-after-year, and have dominated recent age-group rugby in South Africa, has caused speculation that director of rugby and head coach Jake White should ditch the players that have misfired this year and embark on a youth policy.

White himself almost bristled at the suggestion, saying the inevitable change that was needed at Loftus was a tricky balancing act between utilising exciting new talent but also ensuring that an experienced core is there to complement them.

“There needs to be change, that’s inevitable, and we also need some fresh energy,” White said. “Some guys have fallen behind and some players are finishing their contracts anyway. Some have said they might want to move elsewhere in South Africa or overseas.

“We are still negotiating with SAREO [South African Rugby Employers’ Organisation] and SA Rugby as to how many contracts we can have. This year we have used nearly sixty players, but we are limited to 55 contracts.

“So it’s a work in progress, it’s very fluid. And you can’t give guys one-year deals because they need stability. There are spaces available in our squad, but then you also need the right players to complement the guys you bring in.

“I would love to keep everyone coming through our system. In the last three years we have had the strongest junior age-groups in the country. But we need 55 players to leave to put all of them into the senior squad and that’s not possible. Not every guy in the junior ranks at Loftus is going to make it in professional rugby. There are only 23 places in the senior team.

“Which is why probably 60% of the Griquas and Pumas teams have come through the Bulls junior system. And those two teams were the Currie Cup finalists last year, which shows the talent we produce.

“We don’t need more juniors in the team and it’s impossible to win anything big when two-thirds of your team are under 24-years-old. We’ve already gone through that at the Bulls.

“Just using players from the junior system is not the solution to the problem, we need to complement them with players from outside. We need to be proactive, not reactive; we need to look for good players with speed and skill and the ability to change the game whatever their position, and more coaches to make the Bulls stronger. As Director of Rugby, I’m very lucky that the Board, the CEO and our owners say we need to compete with the top sides in Europe,” White said.

While there will clearly be changes in playing personnel for the Bulls, White was bullish in terms of his own management, although he did admit that they probably should have planned differently for the Currie Cup. The 59-year-old is confident that with a productive off-season in terms of structural work, the Bulls will return to their efficient selves and meet the ambitious goals of his bosses and the fans.

“Things have been working, I don’t know why some people think I would walk away. We have not done as well as we could, but it has not been a failure of a season and it has not been all bad. No-one from South Africa was able to get through the playoffs of the Champions Cup and we finished sixth in the URC. If that’s a bad year, then we are in a very good position at the Bulls because things will change drastically next season.

“We could have structured the Currie Cup campaign differently, but we take the Currie Cup very seriously and that’s not going to change,” White said.

Sporting success is never an exact science otherwise everyone would have the same winning formula. But something about the mix at Loftus Versfeld, which produced such potent rugby in the last couple of years, is now off. Plus good old-fashioned bad luck and things beyond their control have gone against them.

With all his experience and rugby wisdom, it would be foolish to bet against White ensuring the Bulls make full use of their resources next season to return to a position of dominance in South African rugby.

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