URC PREVIEW: Bench holds the key to Bulls chances

football14 June 2024 06:00
By:Gavin Rich
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Bulls Players @ Gallo images

The chances of the Vodacom Bulls beating Leinster to advance to the Vodacom United Rugby Championship final depend heavily on them getting a quick start and the bench then coming to the party by matching themselves against much more experienced opponents.

This is not to say that Leinster don’t have a superior starting team, because they do, but the battle between the two run-on sides is evened out by the game being played at Loftus, where altitude is a big advantage to the home side. The margin between the sides gets a lot more pronounced when you get to the bench, where depending on their selection later on Friday, Leinster will probably boast more international caps than the entire Bulls squad.

It is the Leinster depth of both talent and experience that gives them the edge against most teams, and it will likely be the case on Saturday. What can stop Leinster though is for the Bulls to get off to a quick start and rack up points at the stage of the game when the visiting players are still getting used to the burning sensation at the back of the throats that comes with playing on the highveld.


The Bulls have punished a lot of teams early on this season in home games. Come to think of it, the other highveld teams, the Emirates Lions, have done the same. Think back to the Lions’ game against Leinster, where they were going at a point a minute up to the 20th minute. Leinster settled later and had some strong moments but they were always chasing the game after the initial Lions flurry and in doing so, they made mistakes that were punished.

Unfortunately for the Bulls, they don’t have that ace mistake punisher Kurt-Lee Arendse playing for them on Saturday. Neither do they have the potent attacking potential of Canan Moodie. But if the Bulls do get onto the front foot early and then punish Leinster’s attempts to fight back, it would be a movie we have seen before.

Whether it will be the same movie through to the end will depend on how the Bulls bench goes later on in the game as this isn’t the same Leinster team that played the Lions at Emirates Airlines Park. These days, rugby is not 15 against 15 but 23 against 23 and the entire Leinster matchday 23 should be different to the one that played in Johannesburg.

That the top Leinster players did not take their opportunity back then to get used to the conditions they will face this weekend is of course helpful to the Bulls. But how much of a difference will it make unless the Bulls impact squad, as the Bulls call the reserves in their team announcement press releases, and they are quite right to do so for that is what they are, dig deep and raise their game when they come on.

The Leinster team for Saturday will be similar to the one that hammered the Bulls in Dublin on the Easter weekend. The Bulls were competitive in that game to around the halfway mark. It was after that, when the bench players came on, that it shifted. And a change to that scenario is what Jake White’s coaching staff will be targeting.


The first semifinal has been couched as a Bok audition for the home players but it isn’t really. Yes, for some maybe, but the Bulls are a very different team to what the Ireland players will run into in Springbok clothing at the same venue three weeks hence. There will be several Irish players back though for that first test on 6 July, and for them, this is certainly a scene setter.

Not that they will be thinking of the Incoming Tour season just yet. Leinster have shown in the two games they’ve played since their Investec Champions Cup extra-time defeat to Toulouse that they are bristling with intent in their quest to make up for the past two seasons where they topped the log but ended up with nothing in terms of silverware.

It’s a tough ask for them as if they do win on Saturday, they will be heading back overseas again to play one of Munster, in which case the game will be in Limerick, or Glasgow Warriors, in which case they will host the final at the AVIVA Stadium.

It goes without saying that the Bulls will have to be a lot less passive than they were for long sections of last week’s quarterfinal against Benetton. One fancies though that starting as underdogs will suit them, and that gives them a very definite chance. It can be easier in a playoff game if there is less expectation, something the Bulls should know well as they beat Leinster at the RDS Arena when rank underdogs two seasons ago.

The memory of that game should inspire some confidence for the Bulls, but at the same time, it will be another factor mitigating the chances of Leinster arriving in a complacent mood. And the Bulls may need Leinster to be complacent and slightly off their game if they are to win.


The same can be said for the Glasgow Warriors, who played with great intensity and commitment as they ended their playoff drought against the DHL Stormers at the Scotstoun last Saturday but will have to put in a similar effort if they are to stand any chance of beating Munster.

The champions have the easier root to success this year and so far they’ve handled it well, but for the first half of their last league game against Ulster when for a while it looked like they might have blown their chance of finishing top of the log.

But they got through it and showed their pedigree with a resounding second-half turnaround before they executed a perfect finals rugby game plan to knock the Ospreys out last weekend. Last year’s success has only whet the Munster rugby public’s appetite for more success, and the Scottish team will find the whole environment very different, and quite intimidating, in comparison to when they had their crowd behind them against the Stormers.

If this game was being played in Glasgow, the Warriors would have an excellent chance. They don’t lose at the Scotstoun often, with their last URC defeat there being in last year’s quarterfinal against these opponents when they were hampered by a red card. But at Thomond Park it is different and Munster must start as strong favourites to secure home-ground advantage in next week’s decider.

Whether that game will be an Irish derby or a cross-hemisphere battle between Munster and the beaten 2021-22 finalists depends on the Bulls bench. Loftus is always a leveller for the Bulls if they come up against a good team, but the requirement is to keep going over the entire 80 minutes. That is not something the Bulls have done yet this season.

Vodacom United Rugby Championship semifinals


Vodacom Bulls v Leinster - Loftus Versfeld Stadium, Pretoria (16.00)

Referee: Sam Grove-White (SRU)

AR 1: Mike Adamson (SRU) AR 2: Adam Jones (WRU)

TMO: Ben Whitehouse (WRU)

Prediction: Leinster to win by 8

Munster v Glasgow Warriors - Thomond Park, Limerick (19.00)

Referee: Andrea Piardi (FIR)

AR 1: Gianluca Gnecchi (FIR) AR 2: Federico Vedovelli (FIR)

TMO: Matteo Lipirini (FIR)

Prediction: Munster to win by 7