Bulls carry weight of expectation to Italy

rugby14 June 2021 05:08| © SuperSport
By:Brenden Nel
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Lizo Gqoboka © Gallo Images

After the relief of making the final, the Vodacom Bulls will head to Treviso on Monday night knowing they carry the hopes of the country on their shoulders and their performance will be scrutinised across Europe.

There has been limited opposition to South Africa’s entry into Europe and the Rainbow Cup may not have gone off as planned, but it is definitely a pat on the shoulder for the organisers to have got this far given the complications of cross-border travel during the pandemic.

But the Bulls will know that there is a weight of expectation on their shoulders heading to Europe and while they are expected locally to win, their form will be a key talking point among all Pro14 sides with the future in mind.

Treviso have not been the most consistent Pro14 side and have been helped by the Rainbow Cup draw - they beat Zebre twice and their win over Glasgow Warriors was probably their most significant result. However, they followed it up by beating Connacht in Italy to show that while they can’t claim to be four-time champions Leinster, they certainly are no slouches.

The big question for the Bulls will be how they adapt after more than a year in local derbies, to playing overseas for the first time.

While there is no doubting the quality in the Bulls side, playing away from home is a challenge and they will need to adapt early to the opposition, playing at home and by all accounts in a heatwave of 35 degrees that hit Italy this weekend.

Still, that isn’t the only challenge facing the Bulls. Their side has also been hit by call-ups and injuries, with their four Springboks heading to the national camp in Bloemfontein.

They will be without Duane Vermeulen (injured), Morne Steyn, Trevor Nyakane and Marco van Staden. Add to that the injuries to Arno Botha, Elrigh Louw and Embose Papier and they aren’t near their strength.

Add to that six players - including Jan-Hendrik Wessels - that are with the SA under-20 team for their international series in Stellenbosch and the fact the Bulls can still put out a squad is exemplary.

Lizo Gqoboka is back training with the side and is set to rejoin the team and while the likes of Johan Goosen, Jacques du Plessis and Harold Vorster may turn up at Loftus Versfeld this week, it is unlikely they will be in action as their contracts begin only on July 1.

The Bulls will need to take 28 players on the trip to Italy, flying via Amsterdam and Venice to become the first rugby team to head abroad since the pandemic.

The Bulls are part of the Sisonke Vaccination trial, and have received their Covid vaccines, but did PCR tests on Sunday with the results available on Monday. They will also do testing on arrival in Italy.

So while they will arrive on Tuesday in Italy, it will be a far cry from the way teams used to travel and the Bulls will need to adapt fast.

Still, they were happy with their four-try win over the Sharks, meaning they would take momentum into the final, even though they had to play with 13 men at one point.

“I’m very happy that we could defend with 13 guys there, there are some really good attacking players in the Sharks and to keep them out when we had 13 players is really good - they scored one try there,” coach Jake White said afterwards.

“I would prefer if we had 15 guys on the field - I said to someone having Nizaam and Gio on the bench there told a bit because their experience helped. They could talk to the youngsters.

It was a difficult one as well for me because once you scored your fourth try we couldn’t get caught, and you don’t want to get injuries for next week.

“So it is like a balancing act. You think you need to give everyone a game, because you don’t want injuries but at the same time you are on the cusp of getting some momentum. It was a difficult one but at the end of the day we got what we wanted with no serious injuries so hopefully next week we will be able to prepare.”

White said the win in Durban showed the Bulls could handle the pressure of any situation.

“We showed we could handle the pressure - there were times that the Sharks threw everything at us. The moment they dropped the ball over the line on the stroke of halftime was a big turning point for us. They would have two tries and only needed two in the second half. The fact they only got one try in the first half, with all the defending we had to do on our tryline, really motivated us in the changeroom at halftime.

“I’m extremely happy, we got the win we wanted. We as a group have not won before in Durban as a group since I’ve been here. It’s good momentum for us to play in Italy next week.”

And now a different challenge awaits, with the weight of expectation like nothing the Bulls have had since White arrived.

But the team and their coach will relish this. Even with all the complications.