Cape Town — It was a dejected Jake White that faced the media at Cape Town Stadium on Saturday night.
His Bulls team were near and yet so far from becoming the first United Rugby Championship winners after losing 18-13 to the Stormers, and on Friday night, the Bulls Currie Cup side went down 30-19 to Griquas in a Loftus Versfeld semi-final.
“You’re having a full go tonight! It is what it is… There are no positives. We lost twice in one weekend – the most we’ve lost in a long time. So, there are no positives,” the normally smiling White said matter-of-factly.
He wasn’t wrong, but that didn’t paint the full picture. Later, the former Springbok coach did mention that he didn’t have any current Test players in his squad, and that they had to fight back from losing five out of their first six games to reach the final.
What he forgot to state is that they had to beat Leinster in Dublin to make it to Cape Town, which was a monumental achievement, considering the strength of the Irish side.
To his credit, White didn’t want to use the trip back from Ireland – which involved stopovers for the various Bulls groups in cities such as Dubai, Frankfurt and Paris – as an excuse.
There are more than enough successes from this season that White can work with, but he also need to add to the current approach if he hopes to be successful in next season’s URC – and more importantly, the Champions Cup.
The latter tournament is the real alternative to Super Rugby, as it pits the best of Europe against South Africa’s four top franchises.
So, while the Stormers are right to celebrate their URC triumph, the Champions Cup is the bigger prize.
After four Champions Cup league matches – starting on the weekend of December 9-10-11 – there is a knockout round of 16 before the quarter-finals, semi-finals and final on May 20 at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin.
What will help the Bulls in that regard is that they will be match-ready, as they would have played in a number of URC games by then, and won’t be caught cold like they were in the URC this season.
But the main challenge for White as the Bulls coach and director of rugby will be managing his players. He spoke on Saturday night about how the Pretoria side were the only franchise to play virtually full-strength teams in the Currie Cup games as well – and that simply cannot continue next season.
Bulls Currie Cup coach Gert Smal was right in his comments about wanting the tournament to retain its prestige somehow by having the best players performing, and if that cannot be achieved by moving the competition to another period on the calendar, the grand old golden trophy must be placed in a glass box and another Vodacom Cup-type event must be held.
So, that’s the Currie Cup out of the way.
White has made no secret about his admiration for Leinster, and the goal is to emulate the Irish province by topping the URC log to secure a home final, and reaching the Champions Cup final as well next season.
Having developed the current squad since 2020, White has to learn to trust the bench players and other experienced campaigners to do duty in the URC, and not just stick to virtually the same starting XV and match-23.
It was no surprise that Bulls lock Ruan Nortje won the URC Ironman Award for most minutes played (1 394), while captain Marcell Coetzee (1 296) was third and wing Madosh Tambwe (1 295) fourth.
Of course, every team would like to make new signings, and the Bulls have contracted a few new faces, such as lock Ruan Vermaak and wing Sbu Nkosi, and White has promised there are more to come in the next few weeks.
But they are losing Tambwe, Walt Steenkamp, Arno Botha and Sintu Manjezi immediately, and Coetzee may also go to Japan on a sabbatical at some stage.
The No 6 flank is part of the Springbok squad as well, as are Kurt-Lee Arendse, Elrigh Louw and Nortje, so they are unlikely to be available for the opening few months of the URC and might miss the two December games in the Champions Cup – depending on whether they feature on the Bok end-of-year tour.
Those are four major figures for the Bulls, and White won’t be able to replace them easily. Nortje has been a colossus as a lineout king, so there is a major gap at No 5 lock.
White will hope that Johan Goosen gets fit again and is allowed to play in the URC before he rejoins the Bok squad. He is equally comfortable at fullback, although he is considered a flyhalf at Loftus Versfeld and at the Boks.
There is a lack of depth at centre too. Harold Vorster has been a mainstay at No 12, while Lionel Mapoe was his partner for most of the campaign until he got injured, which saw Cornal Hendricks slot in at No 13.
Again, the likes of Stedman Gans and Marco Jansen van Vuren need to get more URC game-time, while another experienced midfielder should be brought in.
If Morné Steyn is continuing for another season, he should play a bigger role as well to relieve the pressure on Chris Smith at flyhalf.
Forwards coach Russell Winter will be happy with how the scrum has improved in recent months, and hooker Johan Grobbelaar has been outstanding at the breakdowns.
The Bulls probably didn’t stick to their positive playing style enough in the final, but they were excellent overall, and attack coach Chris Rossouw will be delighted that his team scored the second-most tries (73) and made the most offloads (231).