Cape Town – There is some good news for the Bulls before they face the toughest assignment of their season – they have rediscovered their physicality upfront, and Kurt-Lee Arendse is not seriously injured.
Jake White’s team travelled to France yesterday for Sunday’s Champions Cup showdown with Toulouse (4pm SA time kickoff) wondering just exactly how they managed to produce their finest performance in a few months, but still leave Belfast empty-handed in Saturday night’s 32-23 defeat to Ulster.
John Cooney’s late penalty denied the visitors a losing bonus point, but as White pointed out afterwards, other results went their way to ensure they still have their destiny in their own hands in the United Rugby Championship playoff race.
They are in seventh position on 43 points, two ahead of the Sharks – who lost 32-20 to the Scarlets in Wales – and one behind Connacht. They should have the beating of Zebre in their next URC encounter on April 15, which will be played at Ellis Park instead of Loftus Versfeld due to a double-header plan with the Lions, who will face Leinster on the same day.
The reverse will happen the following week at Loftus, where the Bulls are likely to take on an under-strength Leinster side, and the Lions will still hope to be in the playoff equation against Zebre.
The Bulls have now lost 11 out of their last 13 games across all competitions, and White was understandably downcast afterwards, adding ruefully that “it seems to be one of those seasons where we just do all the hard work and just can’t seem to get over the last hurdle”.
They arguably deserved to beat Ulster, with Springbok stars Kurt-Lee Arendse and Canan Moodie giving the attack some real bite, while the forwards got stuck in and won the collisions to secure front-foot ball.
It was a display that was the regular standard last season, but a mix of unlucky calls from referee Craig Evans and questionable interventions from TMO Jon Mason going against them, yellow cards to Elrigh Louw and Bismarck du Plessis and Ulster’s lethal driving maul all combined to deny the Bulls victory.
“In the beginning, we were nice and direct, and went through them a few times. Our forwards played really well, especially in the 22 – the one time, we kept the ball for about 20 phases and we scored. So, there was a lot of effort and grunt, which is what we have been looking for. I can’t fault anything that they did,” White said afterwards.
“Obviously one or two scrum penalties that gave them entries into our 22, and that Ulster team know how to score tries when they get to five yards from your tryline – they are doing it successfully against everybody.
“It’s easy to talk about how to stop their maul, but if they’ve got such a good maul and are successful not only against us, but everybody, we probably had to be more aware of not giving them some penalties that we did at crucial times.
“People often talk about momentum-changing (moments), and there were a couple of times where we looked like we were just changing the momentum, and we would give them another entry into our 22.”
Arendse’s stunning try, sparked by Moodie’s counter-attack, was a joy to watch, but the Bulls fullback limped off late in the second half after his left knee had been treated and strapped up. White, though, said it was “just a lammie (lameness) on his leg” and that he would be fine to face Toulouse, while flank Marco van Staden’s leg contusion was also not serious.
But now the Bulls have to find a way to raise their game even further if they want to pull off an upset at the 33 000-capacity Stadium de Toulouse, and they will hope the Belfast outing will instil enough belief and confidence.
“I’ve coached in France: it doesn’t get any tougher. Generally, people use that phrase quite often, but it doesn’t get any tougher than playing Toulouse in a knockout game in Toulouse,” said former Montpellier coach White.
“If you look at the Champions Cup historically, that’s one of the strongest home beds of European rugby. So, it’s going to be a massive task for us, and it’s going to be an opportunity to measure ourselves against some of the best players in the world.
“It’s no use lagging on things that we can’t change: you can only move forward. I said earlier to someone that it’s a great test even on my coaching. I’ve been coaching for a long time, and it’s a great test for us as a group and for me as a coach as well.
“These young guys have done well over the last couple of years, but they’re in a place that they haven’t been for a while. It’s going to be a great learning thing for all of us to see how we can get it right.”