CAPE TOWN – The evolution of Jake White as a coach has come at just the right time for the Bulls.
The Pretoria franchise had a reputation as a team that just uses their forwards to rumble it up, and for a kicking flyhalf to bang over the penalties and conversions.
Their greatest heights came in Super Rugby in 2007, 2009 and 2010, though, when they utilised a complete approach that saw the forwards dominate upfront, while the backs – marshalled by Fourie du Preez – found ways to bring wings such as Bryan Habana, Akona Ndungane, Francois Hougaard and Gerhard van den Heever into play.
But Super Rugby Unlocked in 2020 has created a different Loftus beast, which has taken them to the top of the log as they enjoy their bye week.
“It’s more difficult for teams to defend against us. If they don’t stop our forwards, our forwards will go through them. And if they put too much emphasis on our forward pack, we’ve got backs who can run around them and carve them as well. Sevens backs and Bulls forwards – it’s not a bad combination to play every week,” White said ahead of his team’s 39-6 victory over the Stormers.
The standout feature of the current Bulls side is the variety within the different playing styles. Yes, they battled to get going against Griquas, and lost to the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein.
But then they found their rhythm on attack in the Sharks match, and scored some glorious tries in the 41-14 victory, and followed it up with another outstanding display in the 39-6 triumph over the Stormers.
They showed that they can roll up their sleeves and get stuck in when needed in the Gauteng derby against the Lions, where the home side took on their pack at the scrums and breakdowns.
White’s team again found a way to win after trailing 15-10 at halftime, after some strong words in the change room.
A key aspect of the resourcefulness in their play has been the halfback combination of Ivan van Zyl and Morné Steyn. When the forwards are providing front-foot ball, Van Zyl and Steyn have got the backline going with slick passing, clever little chips and grubber kicks, or by taking on the defence themselves.
When the Bulls pack come under pressure, though, Steyn in particular has brought relief with pinpoint up-and-unders, tactical kicks into space and finding a forward to get over the advantage line.
White has also lauded his team for the interplay between backs and forwards, and it was seamless against the Sharks and Stormers.
The main instigators have been centres Stedman Gans and Cornal Hendricks, while new fullback
David Kriel hasn’t been shy to get involved either.
Add in a lethal left wing in KurtLee Arendse, and you have pretty much the full package on attack.
“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,” White said recently.
“That’s always (what you want) as a coach. We are not onedimensional – we can play with all our players, which is fantastic.”
Of course, teams may have all the ingredients to use different game plans, but they require a coach who allows them to do so.
White is the unlikely figure that is driving that process at the Bulls – given his when he was the Springbok coach of preferring a conservative, forwards-based style.
Now 56, he saw the humour in his own transformation as a coach.
“I’ve coached in Australia,
France and Japan and done a lot of coaching – different situations, teams, styles. Part of the excitement now is that I am not getting labelled as a conservative, Afrikaans kicking coach who just plays with a big pack of forwards, and that’s quite nice!”