URC WRAP: Bulls CAN prevent Irish shut-out

rugby10 June 2024 06:37
By:Gavin Rich
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Vodacom Bulls players © Gallo Images

There’s going to be a lot of talk about the Vodacom Bulls being underdogs in the build-up to Saturday’s Vodacom United Rugby Championship semifinal but anyone who even remotely subscribes to that theory could be making a massive mistake.

To be sure, against Leinster the Bulls will not get away with the sloppy loose play and passive defence that very nearly enabled Benetton to leave South Africa having pulled off the one big upset of the quarterfinal round. The Bulls will also be missing two key X-factor players at the back that do make a quantum difference to the Bulls chances when they are present - Kurt-Lee Arendse and Canan Moodie.

Star players being absent do make a difference. The Bulls appeared to lose their spark when Arendse was injured against Benetton. My prediction of a Stormers win over Glasgow Warriors in their quarterfinal at the Scotstoun was predicated on their most influential player of the moment, Evan Roos, being present. When it was learnt on Friday afternoon the loose-forward would be absent after being concussed in training, the expectation changed and the result that came was expected.

They obviously play different roles to the one Roos does for the Stormers, but if Moodie and Arendse were fit to play against Leinster the Bulls’ chances of winning would go up many per centage points.

Yet, the Bulls always have a good chance of winning at Loftus, whoever they play. Even when those opponents are Leinster. The Bulls turned around a big defeat at the AVIVA Stadium in their first ever URC game when they shocked Leinster at the RDS Arena later in the semifinal later on in that inaugural season.


They can certainly do it again, particularly if Loftus turns out in force instead of the leaving large blue spaces in the stands as was the case for the quarterfinal. That turn out (it was 19 000) may have been understandable. Everybody expected the Bulls to win easily against Benetton, as they had in league play just three weeks earlier. And the semifinal against mighty Leinster was seen as a racing certainty.

Leinster didn’t take long after the Bulls had snuck home against the Italian team to turn the key and make it a proper certainty. Jake White would hardly have finished his press duties at Loftus when the Dublin team had taken a 17-0 lead that they were never going to relinquish. Ulster beat Leinster twice in league play this season, but they were always going to be hard pressed to do it in a knock-out game.

The Leinster dominance was never quite as emphatic as the end scoreline might suggest, but it was emphatic enough and their performance was energetic and vibrant enough to confirm again that Leinster mean business in the playoffs of the URC this year. They’ve been tripped up in the past, it will be harder to turn them over this time.


No one would argue against the contention that Leinster should be the favourites. But it is more marginal than some might contend. If the Bulls do raise their game, which they almost certainly will if they start with the underdog tag at their own fortress, they will have a great chance of winning despite Leinster’s best intentions.

Indeed, this might be the week where Leinster will regret the fact they’ve never taken a full strength squad to South Africa. Some of their players haven’t even been in this country, let alone played at altitude. In that regard, it might be fortuitous for the Ireland coaching staff that Leinster are coming to Pretoria for a semifinal. Many of those same players will be back at Loftus in similar conditions and in a similar atmosphere for the first test against the Springboks on 6 July.

Which is a reason South Africans should be hoping fervently that the Bulls, as the last remaining local team in this year’s edition of the URC, manage to win. It’s likely to be an all Irish final otherwise, for Glasgow Warriors will be up against it against Munster in the other semifinal at Thomond Park.

While they’ve lost players at the back, the Bulls should get some important players back up front. Marcel Coetzee is understood to be available again, and he’s played some top games against Leinster in the past, not least when he was the talisman of Ulster.

Even more a significant returnee though, given that Coetzee has been out for a while and probably won’t be rushed back into the starting line-up, is that of Marco van Staden. The Bulls haven’t missed him quite as much as the Stormers missed the man who plays a similar role for them when he is fit, Deon Fourie, but they have missed the man they call Eskom all the same.

But let’s not mince words - the Bulls are going to have to make a massive improvement on what they did against Benetton. They need to lose their passivity and get back the strut that all opponents acknowledge they do have when they run out onto Loftus.


Making the semifinal was a good reward to the Bulls for the improvements they have made this season and to White for correcting the mistakes of last year and also doing good off season business. White faced down some difficult questions at the DHL Stadium after his team was outplayed by the Stormers in last season’s quarterfinal.

There was even one rather idiotic question focusing on whether he should resign. His team had finished sixth, not last! White kept calm, he told us what he was going to do, which included changes to coaching personnel in addition to playing staff, and he did it. And now he’s on the cusp of taking his team to the final after finishing second on the log.

The Stormers will hopefully learn from their first failure in three attempts to go all the way to the last game in the URC. It might be stretching it to suggest their coach John Dobson is in the same place as White was this time last year. The Stormers were always up against it once they had blown their tour in November by losing all four games, and to win the URC, as they will testify from experience, you do have to ensure you have home advantage in the playoffs.


Okay, so Munster confounded that last season, but that was an outlier. Had the Stormers been playing at home this past weekend instead of in Glasgow, they might have got the rub of the green in the close refereeing calls, like the failure to card Kyle Steyn for his illegal challenge on Warrick Gelant early in the game.

The later mistake wasn’t close rub of the green stuff, it was just blatantly wrong - the Stormers should have had a penalty from the scrum six or seven minutes from time, when they were trailing by just three points, rather than being penalised themselves. Instead of being in the attacking position that they should have been and pressing for the win, they ended up defending.

And with the long trip over appearing to contribute to dead legs in those final minutes, the Stormers conceded points when chasing the game that put a completely false gloss on how the game went. The Stormers conspired against themselves, and in many sense their performance was a microcosm of their season, with some good parts and some rank bad parts. You don’t miss 10 points from the tee, as Manie Libbok did, and expect to win a close game.

It is true that the conditions were difficult for kickers, but the Glasgow kicker George Horn earned the man of the match award for his performance from the tee. That was really where the game was won and lost for the Stormers. That and a couple of really soft moments, the most obvious being the one where they allowed Glasgow to score straight after the Stormers had scored their first try.


Fortunately Dobson disclosed afterwards that Sacha Feinberg-Mngomezulu was cramping, which was why he was pulled off straight after that try was scored. Otherwise it would have been a weird move, for it is clear that Feinberg-Mngomezulu is a much more reliable place-kicker than Libbok is and the Stormers may have to select around that if they want to add more trophies to the URC title they won two seasons ago.

They were tenacious and determined against the Stormers, and playing at home with a lot to prove as they’ve developed a reputation for being chokers in playoff games. But while they are a well stocked team, the trip to Thomond Park is likely to be a bridge too far for them.

Leinster and Munster were the two teams that won comfortably in the quarterfinals, with Munster playing perfect finals rugby against an Ospreys team that was willing but outgunned and simply spent way too much time pinned in its own half. Munster will start as strong favourites to secure their home ground as the venue for the final.

The Loftus game is actually a lot less easy to predict than that one is…


Munster 23 Ospreys 7

Vodacom Bulls 30 Benetton 23

Leinster 43 Ulster 20

Glasgow Warriors 27 DHL Stormers 10

Vodacom United Rugby Championship semifinals

Vodacom Bulls v Leinster (Pretoria, Saturday 4pm)

Munster v Glasgow Warriors (Limerick, Saturday 7pm)