Cape Town - The pressure is on for the Bulls to end a five-game losing streak against the Stormers in the United Rugby Championship, and they have chosen to close ranks and retreat into their kraal ahead of Saturday’s quarter-final at Cape Town Stadium (3.30pm kickoff).
Where they usually hold at least one press conference before a Wednesday, the Pretoria side are only due to speak to the media on Thursday for the first time this week ahead of Friday’s team announcement by coach Jake White.
The Bulls lost three times to John Dobson’s team last season, including the 18-13 final defeat, and also went down in the two league matches in the current campaign – 37-27 last December in Cape Town and 23-19 at Loftus Versfeld in February.
White will have some tough decisions to make this week in a number of positions, including flyhalf, where Johan Goosen sustained a hamstring niggle in the past weekend’s Currie Cup loss to Western Province, and with the loose trio – where Marcell Coetzee is available again after a stint in Japan.
But the main goal is to come up with a strategy to end their hoodoo against the defending champions.
“Let me be clear: as the Bulls, we still haven’t done anything in the United Rugby Championship. In all probability, the odds will tell you the Stormers should beat us,” White said in typical fashion in a URC press release this week as he laid claim to the underdog tag.
“But all I can say is the resilience we talk about is much more meaningful to youngsters when it comes from a position of experience and having been through it.
“Sometimes, that’s what a team needs to move to the next level.”
White added that he had played a round of golf at Leopard Creek recently with former Springbok captain Morné du Plessis and other close friends, and also recalled something that legendary golfer Ernie Els had said to him previously as he pondered about arresting the Bulls’ 10-match losing streak across all competitions.
They turned things around briefly by beating Griquas, Zebre, Lions and a weakened Leinster side over the last few weeks, but a fairly strong Bulls line-up came up short at Cape Town Stadium once again as they went down 31-7 to a genuine Western Province Currie Cup side last Saturday.
But while it’s been a long and sometimes arduous road to this weekend’s URC quarter-final, the fact remains that the Bulls are still in the hunt for the title.
“It wasn’t just the golf. It was nice to be able to talk to good friends about all sorts of things. They give you pearls of wisdom. When you’re in those environments, you get a little bit more balance in everything. Whether it’s about business, banana farming or rugby, you can talk about all of these things and it gives you perspective again,” White said.
“It’s a bit like when I coached the Springboks. You know what it feels like when you’re in that hole, and you will find any way not to go there again.
“I remember in the Rugby World Cup in 2007, because we had struggled in 2006, it was definitely a motivating factor for us. Ernie Els said a part of what keeps him working so hard at the game is a fear of failing. You work hard, so you don’t have to go there. Ernie has hit the nail on the head with that.
“One of the things I’ve always said to my players is that in golf, there is always pressure. The pressure is sometimes for the young golfer or rookie to make enough money and make the cut.
“Then you get the Ernie Els’ and Tiger Woods’ and the greats that don’t worry about the cut – their end-goal is how they win the tournament.
“It’s a very different pressure playing the 18th (hole) on a Sunday to win as opposed to playing on a Friday afternoon to make the cut to ensure you make enough money.
“I tell my players that we must always get to the point where we have the pressure of walking down the 18th on a Sunday with a chance to win the tournament.
“This season for me has been a little bit like playing on the Friday to make the cut, where for the past two years for this group, it’s been about walking up the 18th on a Sunday trying to win the tournament.
“This season has been about, are we good enough? Why do I have the yips in my putting? Are we going to make the cut? We’re under pressure here. These are questions that have never been asked of this group of players.
“We had to make the cut, and we’ve done that. Now we have three games to win the competition. It’s just like golf, with two days now to win it.
“And in golf, the one who just makes the cut compared with the player who is six shots ahead, there is no guarantee the player in the lead is going to win the competition.
“So ,now it’s a new competition. It’s irrelevant how many games you’ve won out of 18, or if they’ve beaten you in the pool stages.
“The point is now, ‘Who plays the best at the back-end of the competition?’. That’s why I’ve said all along: don’t measure us halfway through the competition. The first priority when you sign up to any competition is to make sure you play in the playoffs. That’s the bottom line.”