Jake White: Great to top Currie Cup log, but now to pick best Bulls team for semi-final
“As soon as we held on to the ball and started to get a bit more confidence, I knew that we would start believing.” That was the word from coach Jake White after watching his Bulls team hit back from 9-0 down to clinch a 22-15 victory over the Lions on Wednesday.
The hard-fought win handed the Pretoria side top spot on the Currie Cup log, and they will now host a semi-final against the same Lions side at Loftus Versfeld on January 16, as well as the final if they advance that far.
In the other playoff, Western Province will face the Sharks at Newlands on the same day.
Having been forced to field a new-look backline due to Covid-19 protocols, White said he “expected us to struggle” at the start, but he praised their fighting spirit as they clawed their way back into the game.
Flyhalf Chris Smith kicked four penalties and converted a well-taken try by scrumhalf Embrose Papier, and replacement pivot Morné Steyn slotted a late shot at goal, while Lions fullback Tiaan Swanepoel landed five three-pointers of his own.
“We basically had the whole backline not starting, and it was always going to be difficult, but I compliment (the players) for the way we fought back,” White said afterwards.
“It was always going to take time, and we didn’t really have the ball at the beginning. Every time we had the ball, we turned it over or gave a penalty away. As soon as we held on to the ball and started to get a bit more confidence, I knew that we would start believing.
“It’s difficult for teams to come and play at Loftus now, and that’s part of what we talk about. I was very happy with the way all the players contributed. We didn’t even really train – to be fair, we probably had about three training sessions based on the fact that Covid hit us so badly.
“We didn’t start as well as we would’ve liked, but at the end of the day, we got the result and finished top of the table, which is great for us.”
The Lions dominated the early physical exchanges as they climbed into the rucks and won a few scrum penalties. But in the second half, they wasted a number of attacking opportunities amongst the backs and a couple of lineout drives.
“We had some good opportunities, and didn’t manage to take them. We made crucial errors at crucial times, and obviously disappointed with the result. But we’ve got 10 days to fix it, and come back to Loftus and be ready,” Lions coach Ivan van Rooyen said.
“We created a lot of opportunities, and part of the frustration is that we didn’t capitalise on it. The momentum went for us and against us, and for them and against them. So, set-piece-wise, there were enough positives to build on.
“Defence was good, attack wasn’t that good – a lot of stuff to work on, and a lot of things to improve on, but enough to get us excited.”
The Bulls complete their league programme against the Pumas in Mbombela on Sunday (4.30pm kickoff), and White now has the luxury of resting his first-choice players for the semi-final.
“I heard that the Province game is off, so we end on top of the log and I don’t really need to risk players (against the Pumas). A lot of guys I could’ve used today, I couldn’t use because their return-to-play protocols haven’t been good enough,” the former Springbok coach said.
“Hopefully now we can try a couple of things, but I’m not sure yet. I’m going to sleep on this and have a look at the injuries or niggles we’ve got. We are going to play the Lions again, so we are going to try to find out what I think is the best team to play the Lions when we get them again.”