Director of rugby Jake White has assembled an impressive cast since taking charge at Loftus Versfeld in 2020, on and off the field – and it is not only the big-name signings that have added the necessary sprinkling of gold-dust across the squad.
They are fourth on the URC log and have earned a home fixture in the Champions Cup round of 16, which will be against Lyon at Loftus on April 6.
White has always said that it will take a few years to build the ultimate team that can be genuine, consistent contenders for titles, and it appears as if the Bulls are getting close to that point – if they haven’t already.
Kurt-Lee Arendse and Canan Moodie became Springboks at the Bulls, Stedman Gans and David Kriel have developed into a fine centre pairing, Embrose Papier is pushing for a Test spot again, Cameron Hanekom and Mpilo Gumede are the next big things in the loose forwards, Reinhardt Ludwig and Janko Swanepoel have shown remarkable growth as young locks, and Gerhard Steenekamp’s game has gone to another level this season.
Then you look at the new faces at the Bulls this season, and they have brought some much-needed depth and experience.
Willie le Roux has added width on attack, Devon Williams, Sebastian de Klerk and Sergeal Petersen have proven their worth as a back-three, Wilco Louw has been a powerhouse in the scrums and Akker van der Merwe has been full of energy in the tight-loose.
On the coaching front, they have recruited smartly, with the well-travelled Gary Gold, former Bok lock Andries Bekker and ex-Cheetahs flyhalf Kennedy Tsimba among the fresh expertise that has been added to the management group.
The Bulls also have the stats to back up their improvement this season. They have scored the most points in the entire URC with 324, which is 66 more than the Lions’ 258, while log-leaders Leinster are on 257.
The Pretoria side have the best points difference tally of 114 too, ahead of Leinster’s 96, and have scored the most tries with 43 in their nine matches – with Glasgow second on 37.
Their defence has been better as well, with 24 tries conceded – Leinster are on 20, while Munster have given away the fewest with 17 – but the Bulls have the highest points against total among the current URC top eight on the log with 210.
But there is still a nagging feeling that they can be even better going forward.
Still room for improvement
Just in their last game, the 30-28 URC win over the Lions at Loftus, the Bulls missed out on a four-try bonus point that would have pushed them into third position on the standings.
They also allowed the Lions to hit back despite leading 20-12 and later 27-18, and they would have lost if Jordan Hendrikse had landed a post-hooter penalty.
White bemoaned his team’s generosity afterwards, pointing out “poor game management at times”, referring to a late charge out of the Bulls 22 by young No 8 Hanekom, while Kriel also lost possession and gifted the Lions a try in the second half.
White noted that on attack, the Bulls had “pulled the trigger too quickly at times... and looked like we were disjointed”.
That is why the Bulls need to shore up their finishing if they hope to go all the way and win both the URC and Champions Cup titles.
They are certainly capable of doing the double, considering their strength in depth. Perhaps their best performance in the current campaign was the 31-17 win over Bristol in England, where a heady mix of forward power and creativity on attack combined for a bonus-point triumph.
They would do well to try and copy that display, but it will require some bold selection calls from White over the next few months to balance the requirements between the URC and Champions Cup.
The latter competition will resume on April 6 for the Bulls when they face Lyon in Pretoria, and it is imperative that they have their best possible match-23 fit and ready for that game.
Big players need to deliver
That means that all of Le Roux, Arendse, Moodie, Johan Goosen, Ruan Nortjé, Ruan Vermaak, Wilco Louw, Johan Grobbelaar and Gerhard Steenekamp must be firing at full tilt, having missed some games for various reasons this season.
The best way to manage the next two months may be to pick the strongest possible sides for the Lions, Stormers and Dragons games, and send an alternate group – many of whom actually featured in the win over Bristol – to Dublin for the Leinster encounter.
That would ensure the first-choice squad are in prime shape for the Lyon game on April 6, as they would have played enough rugby and avoided long-distance travel the weekend before.
Le Roux should be back from his wedding and honeymoon break at the end of February, and that would allow him time to attain greater cohesion with Kurt-Lee Arendse, Canan Moodie, Stedman Gans, David Kriel, Johan Goosen and Embrose Papier as the first-choice backline against the Stormers and Dragons.
Tighthead prop Louw should return from his shoulder injury for the Stormers clash as well, and a full-on pack could be made up of Gerhard Steenekamp, Johan Grobbelaar, Wilco Louw, Ruan Vermaak, Ruan Nortjé, Marco van Staden, Elrigh Louw and Cameron Hanekom – although Marcell Coetzee, Mpilo Gumede and Nizaam Carr could also start at No 8.