The joie de vivre is back in the Bulls’ game. It may not be a concept that is readily equated with the Pretoria franchise, but they are doing things differently at Loftus Versfeld these days, and the refreshing approach is paying off.
Saturday night’s 41-14 bonus-point victory over the Sharks pushed the Bulls to the top of the Super Rugby Unlocked standings, and while scoring six tries is always something that will please the coach, it was the performance that was a joy to behold.
Gone was the hesitancy, especially on attack, from the win over Griquas and the two-point loss to the Cheetahs.
And the forwards found their mean streak to repel and eventually dominate a Sharks pack that had won the early battles, especially in the scrums.
But it was the first try from Stedman Gans that really ignited the spark in the Bulls attack. Another Sanele Nohamba box-kick that went too far was easily claimed by fullback David Kriel, and from there, the likes of Kurt-Lee Arendse, Travis Ismaiel, Duane Vermeulen and Cornal Hendricks punched holes in the defence by running with purpose and vision at the opposition – not just aimlessly with their heads down.
Blitzbok star Gans produced some magical feet after that as he put Sikhumbuzo Notshe on the floor with a mesmerising sidestep before racing away from Phepsi Buthelezi and James Venter to dot down under the posts.
If ever director of rugby Jake White wanted to show his players his blueprint, that’s it – that’s the tweet, as they say on social media.
Morné Steyn – who was much maligned in some circles even when the Bulls won three Super Rugby titles – proved that he has it in him to create interesting plays, with a classy grubber in the second half sitting up perfectly for Arendse to pounce, which led to Gans’ second five-pointer.
The players had looked a bit confused against Griquas and the Cheetahs as the forwards weren’t physically destructive, and the backs weren’t quite sure about when to kick and when to hold on to the ball.
They got that mix right and found their rhythm on Saturday night, and White was understandably delighted. “Compared to the last two weeks, we just started to take our chances. In the last couple of weeks, we probably had the same opportunities, but never used them,” the former Springbok boss said afterwards.
“I’m very pleased when you see guys like Stedman Gans and Marco Jansen van Vuren scoring tries – it gives you great hope. Rugby is always going to be the same: if you are getting dominance upfront and forwards that are getting front-foot ball, it’s easier for the backs to play.
“We’ve got a little bit of a blend of everything now at the Bulls – our forward pack is strong enough and physical enough and dominant enough; and when we are, we can exploit with some of the exciting backs we have. That’s always (what you want) as a coach. We are not one-dimensional – we can play with all our players, which is fantastic.”
But White has been around the block in rugby, and knows things can change very quickly. That is why he is not getting carried away just yet, as the Stormers are lying in wait at Loftus Versfeld on Saturday (7pm kickoff).
The Cape side came back from the dead to beat the Pumas 42-37, and will know that they need to play with the same conviction from the start if they want to have any hope of toppling the Bulls.
“In terms of the Stormers, it’s a completely different game. A lot of those boys played in the World Cup final, and would have probably got a lot of confidence out of yesterday because they were dead and buried in that game,” White said.
“I’m sure they would be feeling positive about the fact that they, to quote John Dobson, they got out of jail and there was a burglary. So, it’s a different game altogether, and with the quality of players they have, they are going to ask different questions.
“We will probably not be able to dominate as much as we did in our forward pack, but we will start that on Monday, and chat and work out strategies to play our game.
“I hope so (that the Sharks match is a turning point in the season), as every coach will hope it’s a turning point for your team. But I am also realistic, as we played so well against the Sharks in our first game and then battled in the next two games.
“I hope that the targets and signals that we gave out, everyone can see the team is growing. If they play well, then they can produce a performance like this again.”