Cape Town – If a sports team lose eight out of their last 10 matches, including five in a row, they are considered to be in a crisis.
That is the situation the Bulls find themselves in at the moment, but director of rugby Jake White doesn’t feel that his team are in a “hole”.
Before tonight’s Currie Cup clash against Western Province at Loftus Versfeld, the Bulls have endured a tough end to 2022 and start to 2023.
Since mid-December, their only victories had come against the Dragons away (29-14) and Exeter Chiefs at home (39-28). Those two wins had come in consecutive weeks, so before and after that, the Bulls had lost 44-14 to Exeter away, 37-27 to the Stormers away, 47-20 to the Sharks away, 23-19 to the Stormers at home, 29-25 to the Lions at home, and then last week’s 63-15 annihilation at the hands of Currie Cup champions the Pumas at Loftus Versfeld.
Of course, White had been sidelined since the Dragons game on January 6 by an abdominal ailment that required surgery, and he only returned for the February 18 encounter with the Stormers.
But the former Springbok coach says all is not lost for the men in light blue.
“Of course it’s a unique time. I look at lots of sporting codes and different coaches… I was out for six weeks with an emergency operation, and I am not saying that is the reason why we’re not winning – that would be arrogant of me,” White said this week ahead of the WP game.
“But to be fair, I’ve been disconnected. We had an eight-game streak where we probably had our toughest eight games in a row since I’ve been involved with the club – Exeter, Lyon, Stormers away before Christmas, Sharks away before New Year.
“Bottom line is that it was inevitable that even if I had been fit and hands-on, we probably would have had exactly the same fixture list and the same pressure.
“It’s the first time as a group that we’re in this whole. I look back at 2006 as a Springbok coach, where we lost a couple of games – and the next year was the best we ever had, winning 13 out of 14 Tests and the World Cup.
“Reading between the lines, people are looking at what happened… I think we were always going to be under the pump in those eight games. We always had to try certain things, and sometimes when you rearrange your squad, you lose cohesion – but you end up getting players to believe that they can play.
“That’s one of the things that’s so tough for a coach: if you keep the same group of players and you don’t win, then the group goes, ‘When are you going to give me a chance?’.
“I look back at last week, and we are not happy or proud of that performance. It’s not the standards we’ve set.
“The Pumas are the champions and had five months to prepare for that game. I can tell you if I had to prepare five months with a team, we’ll win that first game – considering you’ve got five months to look at a team, and they’ve got to go through three competitions.
“I can sense that people are feeling that there is a… what’s happening at the Bulls? I can tell you what’s happening: we’re in a situation we’ve never been in before.
“We’ve got young players who have never felt this circumstance before, and it’s a challenge that we’ve got to get through.
“But how can you be in a crisis when you are still in the top eight of the URC, top 16 of the Champions Cup and you’ve only lost one Currie Cup game – I don’t believe that’s a hole.”
Following the Province game, the Bulls face another gruelling schedule. They travel to Belfast next week for a URC clash against Ulster on Saturday night (9.35pm SA time kickoff), followed by the Champions Cup round of 16 game against Toulouse in France.
At the same time, coach Edgar Marutlulle must prepare the Currie Cup side for a trip to Bloemfontein to face the Cheetahs next Friday, Griffons away on March 31 and Griquas at home on April 7.
The Currie Cup team have another match on April 14 against the Sharks in Durban, while the URC Bulls will battle with Zebre the next day in Pretoria.
Then both teams will rock up at Loftus Versfeld on Saturday, April 22, as the URC team will host Irish giants Leinster, which will be followed by the Currie Cup clash against the Lions.
White will hope that the franchise are still “alive” in all three tournaments by then, but he is optimistic that things will improve.
“I genuinely believe as a coach, listening to the Jurgen Klopps and the Pep Guardiolas and the Vincent Lombardis, these are situations we’ve got to go through as a group of coaches and players,” the former Sharks mentor said.
“Over the last three years, we’ve won two Currie Cups, two Super Rugby Unlocked [competitions], reached the Rainbow Cup final and the URC final.
“We’ve played one Currie Cup game this season, and I understand that it didn’t go well. We are in the race for the URC playoffs still, and we are in the top 16 of the Champions Cup.
“I know that we will get through this. I know that the squad we have will learn from this, and it’s still a long way to go. No one’s won anything – I can tell you now.
“Last year, Leinster won every single game, and lost the European Cup final and the URC semi-final to us. So it ended up that at the end of last season, they won nothing.
“Sometimes you’ve got to go down the dirt road, and sometimes you go on the highway. At this point in time, we haven’t done enough to go on the highway, and now we’re going down the dirt road and have got to vasbyt.
“We’ve got to find a way in which we can get through this. Sometimes in sport, those are the success stories. Sometimes those are the ones you remember more, not the ones where you are always on the highway.
“But as I said, no one’s won anything… let’s not jump ahead. I get the feeling that everyone thinks the season’s gone. It’s a bit like TikTok – if you don’t like this video, you just change it to the next week!
“No South African sides have won anything, and there’s a Champions Cup to be won, a URC to be won and a Currie Cup to be won.
“We just need to get back to where we need to be, and we need to do the things that we do well.
“We are a very proud rugby union. We take our rugby very seriously and we feel for all our supporters that are disappointed.
“But the reason that Naas (Botha) said what he did about the Currie Cup is that you don’t win it in round one – people out there forget why he said it.
“You’ve got to play your best rugby at the end. You’ve got to stay alive and have an opportunity to play in the playoffs.
“I feel for the supporters… We have the best supporters in South Africa. We had the biggest crowd ever (in the URC) of (over) 41 000, so we accept that our supporters have a massive expectation about how good we are and what we do.
“We understand – we haven’t had an easy week either. We haven’t enjoyed the fact that we lost to the Pumas.
“We probably didn’t understand what could happen if it went wrong, and sometimes in sport… Rory McIlroy never made the cut of the golf (Players Championship), and that’s unheard of. But it happens in sport.
“Saying that, we’ll get it right. I’m fully confident with the coaches I have, with the players I have, with the feelings I have in the squad and the buy-in I have from the squad, we’ll get it right.
“If I can say to the supporters, it’s not a great time. It’s not always nice to watch your team lose. But you always get judged on how the season ends.
“Sometimes you can win the first six games, lose the next six and win the playoffs. Sometimes you can win all 12 and lose the playoffs.
“We’ve just got to keep fighting, keep working, keep understanding that we are alive in these competitions. The coaches and players have to work as hard as they can, and that’s all we can do.”