Cape Town - Chris Rossouw is famous for engineering two consecutive Currie Cup final victories for Western Province during his playing days.
Rossouw – the younger brother of Springbok wing Pieter – was a highly skilful flyhalf who played a major part in the finals of the 2000 and 2001 WP triumphs.
He also featured for the Stormers from 2001 to 2005, and later moved to Toulon in France before finishing his career at the Cheetahs. Rossouw also toured with the Springboks in 2000 and played for the midweek team on the end-of-year tour to Europe.
He was not a conventional flyhalf from that era who just looked to put boot to ball, but was a creative mind who probed for space with an intelligent passing and kicking game.
That little left-footed chip over the defence was a signature party trick on the pitch, but Rossouw has expanded his horizons considerably since as a coach.
He emerged as the Maties head coach in the Varsity Cup in 2012, having previously been an assistant coach to Chean Roux at Stellenbosch. Rossouw was the WP Under-21 assistant coach when they won the SA title in 2017, and was brought into the Bulls set-up in early 2019 as the attack coach.
The Bulls ended fifth in Super Rugby that year, but scored only 42 tries – the second-least among the eight playoff teams – and lost 35-28 in the quarter-final to the Hurricanes in Wellington.
Disaster struck in 2020, though, as the Bulls lost five out of six games before Covid-19 ended the tournament, and head coach Pote Human was let go by new director of rugby Jake White, who took over the daily coaching duties.
Rossouw survived the cull, and emboldened by White’s attacking philosophy, the 45-year-old hasn’t looked back.
The Bulls have had a remarkable turnaround over the last two years, resulting in a Super Rugby Unlocked title and two Currie Cups, while they reached the final of the 2021 Rainbow Cup. Now they find themselves taking on the Stormers in today’s United Rugby Championship final at Cape Town Stadium (7.30pm kickoff).
Their attacking game is in fine fettle, and that’s due in no small measure to Rossouw, the mastermind behind their 70 tries in this year’s URC so far – the second-most behind Leinster’s whopping 85. The Bulls also have the second-most points (548), are first in offloads (228), fifth on defenders beaten (333) and fifth on clean breaks (117).
The likes of Kurt-Lee Arendse, Madosh Tambwe and captain Marcell Coetzee are near the top of a number of lists in the attack sector too.
“I am unbelievably proud about that as a team. It is massively rewarding. We don’t chase all those stats – when you said it now, it’s almost the first time that I hear those. But many of those stats are a by-product of how to attack space and how to unlock space. Everybody knows that attack is basically a function of a good set-piece – so Russell Winter (forwards) is doing a very good job there,” Rossouw told IOL Sport ahead of the final.
“Quick ruck ball, where Nollis (Marais, breakdown coach) puts in a lot of time, and it’s one of the things we came across after this first four weeks.
“And then a good defence system (with defence coach Joey Mongalo) that creates turnovers for you. Then, obviously Werner Kruger with the scrums. So, the attack is the function of all of those disciplines.
“Everybody knew that tries were going to have a big influence on where you end on the log – it’s something that Jake emphasised from the start. For me, the most rewarding part of it is the fact that the players have put in the work.
“And when you ask about the interplay between backs and forwards, traditionally if you look at us as South Africans, we don’t want to stimulate that because we believe that there is only one way, and that’s the highway!
“The most satisfaction that I get is when guys who traditionally are just labelled one-trick ponies, start to look for space and then showcase their skills to attack that space.
“So, we would never want to lose our physical forward dominance, but we would really want to add something to that. That is why it’s great when a Marcell or Arno Botha or Elrigh Louw start doing things that you think only backs can do.”
Reaching the final is a far cry from the start of the competition, when they lost 31-3 to Leinster in Dublin. They proved that they heeded those lessons, though, by knocking over the Irish giants 27-26 in last week’s semi-final.
How did that happen? “It was almost as if it (beating Leinster) was the full circle. To be honest, after the first game, I certainly didn’t think so… especially after those first four games. We realised that in a few aspects, we were behind the game,” Rossouw said.
“Not only the fact that we didn’t have an off-season, but there were certain aspects that we definitely had to improve. After those first four games, when we came back – just in terms of attack, we were probably rated last. So at that stage, we really didn’t think there is any sort of chance to make the final.
“That is why I say it’s the full circle. The fact that we got it right where we started (against Leinster in Dublin) is actually special.
“Firstly, the tempo of the game… we were behind. And we realised that the ball-carrier has to be much more explosive. And then our kicking game. Those three aspects, we felt that if we could handle that right, it could give us a lot of return on investment.
“For me, the guys (other teams) had come off an off-season, but we were definitely reactive and not proactive. It could be that we had played a lot of rugby after Covid, but it’s just that when you go that side, the guys are coached in a much more technical and tactical manner over there (in Europe).
“Due to the weather conditions, you have to play a more entertaining game instead of just one aspect. If you look back at it, it’s the best thing that could’ve happened to us, to begin against Leinster. They are the best team and were full of their Irish internationals, and you could immediately notice that we have to grow a lot, and what is actually nice is that it makes this whole 12-month journey that we grew special.
“We rely on our athletic, physical ability, and they realised a long time ago that they were going to lose that fight, so they have to be technically much more astute.
“They have much more experience on that side and we have lots of young guys. But the reality is that we will become much more technically sharp, so if you pair that with our athletic ability, then it can just make us better.”
A major part of the Bulls’ success on attack has been the thrilling back-three of Arendse, Canan Moodie and Tambwe. The stories of Arendse and Moodie are particularly intriguing, as they evolved from wings into fullbacks at different stages.
“Initially we had Gio (Aplon), who had that bad knee injury. Then we had David (Kriel) at fullback, but from early on, we knew that we were short of more fullbacks. It’s not actually about the fullbacks, but having multi-positional players. We were short of guys who could play three or four positions, because in this game, they need to be able to slot in anywhere,” said Rossouw.
“We had Kurt-Lee, who we always knew could play at fullback, and we also had Canan. Since we saw him a year-and-a-half ago, we saw that he is obviously gifted.
“He is actually a centre, and we moved him to wing, as we saw he ticks all the boxes for a multi-positional player. He is deceptively quick, he has an engine, a work-rate, very good in the air, he has natural ball-skills and he can kick. David did very well at fullback, and it was a position that Canan had to learn.
“But what we have put in place now, we are actually playing with three fullbacks in the back-three.
“Everyone knows (Tambwe) is a finisher, and he has X-factor. Now that is what separated him from the rest. But what made him special by us is that he has a work-rate, and he did the simple things consistently well. So, if you pair that with his X-factor and his speed, then the X-factor will come out when it must – you don’t need to take it out to convince us that you are good.
“We went with that approach, and he developed unbelievably well. We focused on the other aspects: do the small things consistently well.”
Flyhalf Chris Smith, though, has been the unsung hero in the Bulls backline. Not as flashy as Stormers counterpart Manie Libbok, it’s the way Smith does the simple things well that makes the rest of the strike-runners on his outside look good.
“Chris has had an unbelievable two years. We have three quality flyhalves, and the great thing is that each guy learns by the other guy’s strong points. (Johan) Goosen and Morné (Steyn) have their specific strengths, so for two years, Chris could bring through his skill-set with whatever he learnt from them,” said ex-No 10 Rossouw.
“His strong point is definitely game management, and he has a solid head on his body, and he is very good with his basics. So, I just went to look back this week at the last two years, for the team, and there were some big games that we’ve won over that time – and he was involved in almost each one of them.
“He is starting to develop to the point where he understands what’s required in the big moments, like Morné has been doing for years – and what better teacher can you get than Morné.
“Just the way Chris takes control and stays calm in the big moments… He got his chance because of an injury, but he did his job well. He is the conductor, and he does that very well. His head and mental ability to stay composed is his strong point.”
As a former WP and Stormers man, Rossouw – just like his Bok brother Pieter, who is also an ex-Bulls attack coach – may have divided loyalties in the URC final. He’s not sure who Pieter will support this time – “We can’t actually lose, because we are on both sides!” – but he cannot wait for the finale to happen.
“I am obviously mad about Western Province – I had an unbelievable time there. I am still a Maties man, and I was involved with the WP juniors. But in the professional game, home is where the heart is, so I obviously got an opportunity up here. And the people of Pretoria have been very good to us and we really enjoy it here,” Rossouw said.
“But it’s great to be able to play against the Stormers, who were my team all the years, which just makes it all the more special. It’s nice to see the Stormers back at the top again, and they have had a very good season. I think they have also worked very hard over the last two years to be in this position.
“My sentiment is just that. There isn’t any extra motivation. At the end of the day, you use the opportunity to play against them, and naturally, my family and my heart is with the Bulls.
“It is a final, so it will be about managing the small margins well. You mustn’t make the game bigger than it is. You can mention all the clichés about dominating this and that, but at the end of the day, it will be about who manages those big moments correctly, and avoiding those small margins of errors. That is going to be the tipping point for me.”