Cape Town - Ruan Nortje has had a difficult introduction to the Bulls captaincy, and after two consecutive South African derby defeats, he may have felt that the situation couldn’t get any worse.
But it did last week ahead of the United Rugby Championship (URC) clash against the Dragons.
It would not have been easy to try to pick up the morale of the team after losing to the Stormers and Sharks to end 2022, but then the Pretoria side faced an arduous trip to Wales to take on the Dragons.
And once they arrived in Newport, director of rugby Jake White was laid low by a stomach issue that eventually became so serious that he needed an operation on his return to South Africa on Sunday.
Thankfully, the former Springbok coach is now out of ICU, and has been given time off until early February, with backline mentor Chris Rossouw taking charge, with support from forwards coach Russell Winter and the rest of the management team.
The players still faced a tough task on the pitch, but responded in fine fashion with a 29-14 bonuspoint victory at Rodney Parade.
“That game was massive for us. We had a lot of pressure on the team and management, but we are very happy with the character shown by the boys,” Nortje said yesterday from Loftus Versfeld, where the
Bulls will face the Exeter Chiefs in the Heineken Champions Cup on Saturday (7.30pm kick-off).
“Obviously it wasn’t perfect, but it was definitely some much better stuff from us in that game, especially when it comes to discipline. That was a massive point for us …
“People who weren’t there won’t understand, but the wind was pretty crazy, so in that case I would probably defend Johan Goosen with the kicking.
“I know that (missing touch from penalties) put us under pressure in the first half, but that was definitely tough conditions in the first half, playing against the wind.
“We all understand the system and what coach Jake wants to implement.
“It was quite easy to adjust, but it’s not nice to not have your coach there. He (White) has now had the operation, and his health is the most important. We wish him a speedy recovery.
“(Flyhalf) Chris Smith was also out with a tummy bug, and all of that placed extra pressure on the guys.
“But I am very proud of the character shown, and how cool and calm the guys were in pressure situations.
“For me, the biggest thing is that I didn’t read any articles about me, and I don’t really have Facebook, so I think that’s the best thing for me personally.
“I know myself better than anyone else, and I know what I am capable of. I know my teammates believe in me, and that’s the most important thing.
“It’s all part of the learning (process), and I am still getting used to the captaincy role.
“But it is something that excites me very much, and it is just for me to constantly learn and grow weekend in and weekend out. No matter if it sometimes doesn’t go your way, or you get criticism – that’s always going to be part of rugby. You shouldn’t read too much into that.”
Exeter beat the Bulls ‘B team’ 44-14 in England a few weeks ago, but the first-choice side will run out at Loftus Versfeld on Saturday.
The forwards especially made a statement of intent against the Dragons, particularly in the scrums, and Nortje wants to see that continue against the Chiefs.
“We definitely let ourselves down in the two derby games, which is not supposed to happen. It hit us hard that we lost the battle up front, and for a Bulls team it hurts a lot,” the No 5 lock said.
“Last week we had good, deep discussions, and I am glad that the guys took it well and showed it on Friday night. We put a big emphasis on physicality, as we know that the Dragons and the Welsh sides overall play for 80 minutes and fight until the end.
“We knew we needed to make a big physical step up if we wanted to get the points in Newport.”