Bulls need some big stars to handle the big moments

Bulls coach Jake White White needs to trust the substitutes if he hopes to make it third time lucky in the URC next season and compete properly in the Champions Cup. Photo: BackpagePix

Bulls coach Jake White White needs to trust the substitutes if he hopes to make it third time lucky in the URC next season and compete properly in the Champions Cup. Photo: BackpagePix

Published Jun 29, 2024


Jake White would’ve woken up last Sunday morning thinking that the whole of Pretoria was weighing on his shoulders, such was the disappointment of the Bulls losing in the United Rugby Championship final to the Glasgow Warriors.

The 21-16 defeat was one that clearly stung White even more than the 18-13 loss to the Stormers in the 2022 final in Cape Town.

That was because last Saturday’s title decider was at Loftus Versfeld, in front of an expected 50 000-strong crowd that had answered the call to fill the stadium.

On top of that, there was no doubt that the Bulls were considered the favourites by most rugby pundits, considering that they were at home and had scored the most tries (85) and most points (639), and ended second on the log with 66 points, behind Munster’s 68.

In addition, Glasgow had to travel from Limerick, where they had beaten defending champions Munster in the semi-final, all the way to Pretoria and take down the Bulls at altitude – but Franco Smith’s men did it.

The Bulls had more than enough chances to put the Scottish outfit away, but were just unable to keep their cool.

Yes, they weren’t given any favours by Italian referee Andrea Piardi, who was reluctant to reward the hosts’ dominant scrum and allowed Glasgow to push the envelope on the offside line – and refused to penalise the visitors in that final maul for going offside.

White understandably moaned about some of those decisions, but what he was certainly right about is that he needs to look at himself first to get his team over the line, and also address the lack of depth on the bench.

The former Springbok coach pointed out that Glasgow had enormous experience among their substitutes, and that is also the case for other top European teams such as Toulouse, Leinster and La Rochelle.

But he also made the mistake of keeping most of his starting forwards on for nearly 75 minutes, and they ran out of steam in the second half against an energised Glasgow pack.

“I can’t knock any of our players, but we don’t have – I can’t put on five internationals, when the pressure’s on,” the Bulls director of rugby said.

“They got a bit of belief and used their bench quite wisely. I wasn’t comfortable (bringing the substitutes on early), and you might say why, and I just thought if we score at the end there and miss the kick, it’s 21-all and then at least I’ve got a bench to play in injury time – they would’ve had nobody.

“It was a bit of a call by me, because I’ve been to a World Cup and I know what it’s like. You go into injury time and you’ve got no more reserves left, you could be in trouble.”

That was a surprise, as White acknowledged earlier in the season that he made the mistake of not trusting his back-up players enough, which saw him give them more game-time during the round-robin games.

But when everything was on the line in the final, he held them back.

White will need to trust the substitutes if he hopes to make it third time lucky in the URC next season, and compete properly in the Champions Cup.

He has insisted that his best young players need more time to build experience in order to handle the pressure moments, but are the Bulls fans and bosses willing to be patient?

In that regard, he needs to make some significant recruits.

Despite the public perception that White has signed almost every South African player who becomes available overseas or goes off contract, it is the calibre of the player that needs to be reconsidered.

Whenever Kurt-Lee Arendse, Canan Moodie and Willie le Roux are on the pitch, the Bulls tend to win – and the same goes for the likes of Marco van Staden, Marcell Coetzee and Cameron Hanekom.

But when they are injured or having an off-day, the Bulls have few big stars who can take charge.

Johan Goosen has probably enjoyed his best season at the Bulls since moving to Pretoria in 2021.

But the former Springbok flyhalf is prone to costly lapses – like the one in the final, when he missed touch from a crucial penalty that he rushed in the second half.

He lacked real competition for the No 10 jersey, as Chris Smith was regarded – somewhat unfairly – as a stop-gap measure to relieve Goosen when necessary.

Smith has seemingly had enough of being the second-choice pivot, and joined French club Oyannax this week on a two-year deal.

The Bulls signed former Scottish international and Lions utility back Jaco van der Walt last season, but he has hardly featured this season.

Boeta Chamberlain was signed recently from the Sharks, where he has had some difficult times on the pitch that saw him let go by the Durban union.

Perhaps he can make a fresh start in Pretoria in next month’s Currie Cup, where Van der Walt will also look to stake a claim for a URC berth.

Someone like dynamic Stormers youngster Sacha Feinberg-Mngomezulu is the type of playmaker the Bulls could do with, but he also signed a contract extension with the Cape side recently.

White did try to bring Damian Willemse to Loftus Versfeld a few seasons ago, but the Springbok star stayed at the Stormers.

Junior flyhalf Compion von Ludwig joined the Bulls from Paarl Boys’ High in the Cape with a big reputation, and has excelled at Under-19 and Under-21 levels for the Pretoria side, and the time may have come to blood him in the senior ranks too.

Another option in the current squad is Keagan Johannes, who was actually a flyhalf at school, but has been mainly utilised as a scrum-half over the past few years.

Giving him game-time at No 10 in the Currie Cup can also create proper competition in the position ahead of the URC season.

The Bulls announced the signings of Stormers openside flank Nama Xaba and Sharks wing Aphiwe Dyantyi this week, and they will provide solid depth.

But White needs to call on Bulls shareholders Patrice Motsepe and Johann Rupert to haul out their chequebooks over the next few weeks if the Pretoria side intend to take the final step to silverware.