Champion Bulls cultivated true fighting spirit
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CAPE TOWN - At times during the first half of the Currie Cup final, it looked like the title decider was just a bridge too far for the Bulls.
Jake White's team looked lethargic, despite trying their utmost to get going with ball-in-hand, as they attempted to stretch the Sharks from side to side in order to tire them at altitude.
Lukhanyo Am's charges, though, were certainly up for the challenge. They hunted down the big Bulls ball-carriers with real zeal, utilising a rush defence that knocked the stuffing out of almost every attack – with JJ van der Mescht, Ox Nche and Sikhumbuzo Notshe leading the way.
And with some assistance from referee Jaco Peyper, who strangely decided not to award a number of scrum penalties to a dominant Bulls unit, the Sharks were 19-9 ahead after 55 minutes. White had seen enough, and cleared his bench. That was almost like a surrender from the former Springbok coach, as he sent on Arno Botha, Jan Uys, Jacques van Rooyen, Mornay Smith and Embrose Papier.
Suddenly, Duane Vermeulen pulled out the Boks' World Cup final party trick – he formed a midfield maul out of a ruck five metres out, and duly won the penalty, which was tapped and Botha scored. Those replacements also went on to defend a series of mauls on their own line, and it all culminated in that thrilling 18-phase move that ended with Botha dotting down for the match-winning try.
It was a remarkable show of fighting spirit from the Bulls squad, especially after their flat start, something White said Vermeulen had mentioned during the 40-minute break for lightning.
There are some tangible factors for the Bulls' turnaround, such as White's dedication to giving his reserves game time throughout the season, while he also mentioned the work done by new Japanese conditioning coach Hitoshi Ipponsugi, along with local trainer Andre Volsteedt, as well as mental coach Henning Gericke.
That never-say-die spirit is the hallmark of champion teams, and the Bulls had it in abundance in the last quarter and extra-time.
White said there wasn't a “secret recipe” for that kind of determination not to lose, and spoke about the happiness within the squad environment as a possible reason.
But the 57-year-old Director of Rugby also needs to take credit for being decisive in what he wants to achieve at Loftus Versfeld.
He has evolved his game plan – from what it used to be at the Boks and the Sharks previously – to encompass a ball-in-hand and kicking strategy, and he empowers his younger players to play without a fear of failure.
For all the Sharks' talent in their backline, they have stuck with a kicking-based strategy that does not make the most of attacking weapons like Aphelele Fassie, Sbu Nkosi, Am and Yaw Penxe, and just seemed to play within themselves.
The same could also be said about the Stormers/Western Province this season. And perhaps that freedom to utilise their individual strengths has been the secret to the Bulls' overall success …