Cape Town — The Blue Bulls had three points after four matches in this year’s Currie Cup, so it is remarkable that they managed to qualify for the semi-finals in dramatic fashion on Saturday.
But that doesn’t mean that the Pretoria side are happy to simply still be in the mix for a title that they last won twice in 2021.
They will have to travel to Bloemfontein for Saturday’s play-off with the Cheetahs (5pm kick-off) after going down 31-27 to the Free State outfit at Loftus Versfeld this past Saturday, having lost No 8 Elrigh Louw to a red card just before half-time for a dangerous ruck clean-out.
But while the lengthy discussion and differing opinions between referee AJ Jacobs and TMO Aimee Barrett-Theron over whether it should be a yellow (Jacobs) or red (Barrett-Theron), the Bulls rather want to concentrate on fixing their major shortcoming at Loftus: the breakdown.
The visitors flooded the ruck with great numbers and managed to overpower the Bulls by shoving them off the ball, which resulted in several wasted attacking opportunities.
The Bulls shot into a 19-0 lead in just 15 minutes through tries by Cornal Hendricks, Harold Vorster and Embrose Papier in what was a Loftus farewell for retiring veterans Morné Steyn and Bismarck du Plessis.
But once the Cheetahs forwards got stuck in at the tackle point, the game quickly turned into their favour.
The Cheetahs’ maul defence was also solid and these are the two main areas that Jake White and his coaching staff need to address this week.
“We were beaten at the breakdown – the Cheetahs really came at us hard at the breakdown, and they disrupted us, especially after that first 20 minutes. They disrupted a lot of our plays, and that’s what we’ve got to get right. Semi-finals are obviously a different ball-game, so we’ve got to do what we’ve got to do,” Bulls assistant coach Hugo van As said.
“We will have to look at it, but at one stage, we felt that there was a bit of a free-for-all – not just from one side, but both sides. Teams were coming in from the side, and more was allowed than what we would be used to.
“But we’ve got to adapt and be more clinical. On the night, those are the decisions that are being made, and we’ve got to live by that. We’ve got to make sure that we are more clinical and make sure that we look after our ball better.
“I think we were beaten at the breakdown today – although we had a great opportunity at the end with a maul that was going forward in the last minute.
“We have to have a look at that and see if we can make use of those opportunities. You don’t get those opportunities a lot of times in a match, and we’ve got to be more clinical with that.
“If it is going to take typical Blue Bulls rugby, or semi-finals rugby, so be it. But we’ve got to be better on the night and more clinical in the execution of our game-plan.
“I don’t think we have to do anything differently. This team is hungry. They are desperate at the moment. They showed a lot of desire tonight to hang in there. I think a lot of sides would have gone away with what happened – that we lost Elrigh, and then we lost Embrose Papier (to a hamstring injury).
“This side is hungry, and the fact that we are in the semi-final will look after itself. We’ve just got to be more clinical, and we understand that we need to sort out the breakdown.”
Papier – who showed his class when scoring his try with a thrilling turn of pace and side-step – is also likely to miss the semi-final at least with his injury, with Van As saying that he was “struggling at the moment”.
But the Bulls have quality back-up at scrumhalf in the quicksilver Keagan Johannes – who plays a similar attacking style to Papier – likely to wear the No 9 at the Free State Stadium, with one of Zak Burger and Bernard van der Linde able to come onto the bench.