Cape Town – The last time the Bulls had arguably little to no chance of winning, they did the unthinkable by beating Irish giants Leinster in Dublin.
Considering their current slump of 10 defeats in 12 matches, following Friday night’s 32-7 Currie Cup loss to the Cheetahs, you would be hard-pressed to find even the most diehard Bulls fan to expect them to pull off a victory over Ulster in Belfast on Saturday night (9.35pm SA time kickoff) – but stranger things have happened.
At least there is some positivity surrounding the Pretoria side this week with the inclusion of Springbok stars Kurt-Lee Arendse and Canan Moodie in the backline. They possess skills that Jake White admits he hasn’t been able to replace in their absence, but the issue is even bigger than that.
“That was part of my reflection. I know all teams lose players and their Springboks, but for us losing (Johan) Goosen, Marcell (Coetzee), Canan, Kurt-Lee, Madosh Tambwe, Arno Botha and Walt Steenkamp didn’t help us, because we didn’t have the same equivalent players that could come in and fulfil those roles,” the Bulls director of rugby said from Northern Ireland yesterday.
“Using the Stormers as an example, (Clayton) Blommetjies has played so well that he has made the coaching staff move Damian (Willemse) back to 12, and it’s obviously like-for-like. Whatever Warrick Gelant offered them last year, he is offering that this year. And to be fair, I probably didn’t replace like-for-like.
“So, I’m just expecting them (Arendse and Moodie) to do what they’re good at. They offer us a little bit of X-factor. They are both Springboks who are going to play at the back-three at the World Cup, and obviously have great skill-sets for that kind of style as well.
“Having David Kriel on the one wing, Canan on the other wing and Kurt-Lee at fullback offers us a nice balance between defensive and attacking abilities.”
It’s one thing having such big names back, but it’s another to make full use of them. The Bulls have actually been creating scoring opportunities, but have often wasted those in the red zone.
A clear strategy about how they intend to break down Ulster’s immense defence must be in place, and then it’s up to the players to go out and execute it.
That won’t be easy against a streetwise Ulster outfit that will be led by Bok No 8 Duane Vermeulen tonight, but the Bulls need to give themselves a chance by avoiding unnecessary errors at Kingspan Stadium.
“Their home record is very strong, as it is with many of the top sides. They beat the Stormers 35-5 this year, considering the Stormers are the champions… that was a convincing win,” White said.
“They have quite a few Irish players not available, but their squad is quite balanced and quite settled. They play well at home and they have a big pack of forwards.
“They play well with the style of play that they have, and they maul well. Their set-pieces are very strong, and they weren’t an easy team to beat even last year away from home.
“The prediction so far is that it’s going to be a bit of a clear day, but I don’t think it’s just the weather. It’s the style they play, whether it’s raining or not – they are very good at it.
“They’ve got a good set-piece, good kicking game, they maul well and they’ve got a very good home record.
“Hopefully the 80 minutes we had last week (in the 41-33 Currie Cup loss to Western Province, where the Bulls fielded a full-strength URC side) is the sort of boost or cohesion time that we needed.
“If it is, then it reaffirms what I said earlier: that not keeping them together for a long period of time didn’t work in our favour.”
Teams For Belfast
Ulster: 15 Mike Lowry 14 Rob Baloucoune 13 James Hume 12 Stewart Moore 11 Jacob Stockdale 10 Billy Burns 9 Nathan Doak 8 Duane Vermeulen (captain) 7 Nick Timoney 6 David McCann 5 Sam Carter 4 Kieran Treadwell 3 Jeff Toomaga-Allen 2 Tom Stewart 1 Andrew Warwick.
Bench: 16 John Andrew 17 Eric O’Sullivan 18 Gareth Milasinovich 19 Alan O’Connor 20 Harry Sheridan 21 Marcus Rea 22 John Cooney 23 Jude Postlethwaite.
Bulls: 15 Kurt-Lee Arendse 14 Canan Moodie 13 Cornal Hendricks 12 Harold Vorster 11 David Kriel 10 Chris Smith 9 Zak Burger 8 Elrigh Louw 7 Cyle Brink 6 Marco van Staden 5 Ruan Nortjé (captain) 4 Ruan Vermaak 3 Mornay Smith 2 Johan Grobbelaar 1 Gerhard Steenekamp.
Bench: 16 Bismarck du Plessis 17 Simphiwe Matanzima 18 Francois Klopper 19 Janko Swanepoel 20 WJ Steenkamp 21 Embrose Papier 22 Morné Steyn 23 Stedman Gans.