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Focusing On the Bulls-Eye

Jake White’s masterfully turned the Bulls’ fortunes around. The remaining crack will take time to fix and requires fresh faces to step up.

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Jake White’s masterfully turned the Bulls’ fortunes around in no time. The remaining crack will take time to fix and will require fresh faces to step up, writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.

Like he’s done throughout his decorated career, most famously guiding the Springboks to their second World Cup title in 2007, Jake White has awoken a sleeping giant like only he can. Less than a year into his tenure as Bulls Director of Rugby, he’s brought two trophies back to the dusty cabinet at Loftus, ending a decade-long drought by winning Super Rugby Unlocked and doubling up by clinching the Currie Cup.

The turnaround has been nothing short of remarkable. Quintessentially Jake. Say what you want about the former schoolmaster’s management style or staying power, but he’s unrivalled in terms of transforming and returning flailing teams to their former glory. Yet again, White’s architected a masterful overhaul from the ground up, making astute structural, coaching and personnel changes to restore the Pretoria franchise as South Africa’s premier side heading into PRO rugby.

A staunch traditionalist, he’s taken a back to the future approach by assembling a group of gargantuan gladiators who dominate through force, complete with one of the game’s all-time great generals and hard men in Springbok No.8 Duane Vermeulen. Luring Vermeulen back to Loftus as his commander-in-chief has been a masterstroke, as has been most of his major signings and tactical changes, such as converting Springbok wing Cornal Hendriks into a centre.

But alas, not all plans can pan out perfectly, while others take time. A shaky scrum emerged as the chink in the Bulls’ armour on their march to a domestic double and with the set-piece carrying extra weight in the Northern Hemisphere game, it’ll essentially be a bulls-eye once they eventually touch down abroad.

Even though the return of first-choice titans Trevor Nyakane and Lizo Gqoboka will improve things tenfold, the double Springbok boost is a quick fix rather than a lasting solution as depth is crucial. Unfortunately for the Bulls, things are probably going to get worse before they get better at scrum time.

The only big signing of White’s extensive recruitment drive that’s backfired (at this stage) is that of Marcel van der Merwe. The seven-cap Springbok tighthead endured a torrid homecoming following a stint at French giants Toulon. However, even though he was engulfed by the next wave of South African props in his sporadic showings, he’s not a lost cause just yet.

As a tourist has to adjust to different time zones, so, too, front-rowers have to adapt to scrum law interpretations, which are notoriously different from one hemisphere to the other. On loan to French club La Rochelle for a short stint as a medical joker, scrumming down up North might just be what Van der Merwe needs to rise from the ashes.

Consider, too, that props traditionally only enter their prime in their 30s, and even though it feels like Van der Merwe’s been around forever, he’s a couple of months younger than Gqoboka and Nyakane at 30 years of age, so he’s not spoilt goods as many consider him to be based on his recent battles.

At 34, Jacques van Rooyen is the eldest statesman up front and will bring some valuable grizzled grit to the table, but it’ll be up to the young guns that struggled in the summer – Jan-Hendrik Wessels, Gerhard Steenekamp and Mornay Smith – to step up.

They have a world of potential and as modern era props, their mobility and work rate is top-notch, but like all front-row rookies, they first need to get through their baptism of fire. Shining a light on this in the broader context, ex-Springbok prop Rob Kempson recently explained that the safety laws at schoolboy level (which he rightfully praised) are such that young props are only truly introduced to the dark arts of scrummaging at senior level.

Wessels, the most touted of the trio, touched on this recently. “I remember my first training session very well. It was a scrum session. It doesn’t get more real than that. It’s where you need to stand your ground, and as a prop this is where you get rated.

“Coach Daan Human was there. It was easily the toughest session I’ve had in my life. It was hard. That’s when I realised, ‘okay, this is what professional rugby is all about.'” At 1.93m and 120kg, the former schoolboy prodigy is a sure-fire future Springbok according to White, but just like all who’ve come before them, the 20-year-old Grey College product and his fellow rookies will have to earn their stripes.

Looking at Steenekamp, he has skills for days, especially for someone who stands 1.94m tall and weighs 128kg. He’s similar to Tendai Mtawarira in that he played eighthman in his schoolboy days and there’s already talks that he could become the Bulls’ “Beast.” Naturally, though, the 24-year-old’s still getting to grips with the complexities of scrummaging.

So, too, is 23-year-old Smith, whose ability to win turnovers at the breakdown has been the most striking aspect of his play to date. The PRO14 Rainbow Cup SA that kicks off this weekend will help harden the trio at scrum time, but they’ll only well and truly pay their school fees when they eventually pack down against the fire-breathing beasts of the North.

Perhaps it’ll be new signing Mheli “Giraffe” Dlamini who becomes the scrum stabiliser. The big unit’s a left-field recruit from Durban club Crusaders, but I like that White hasn’t gone deeper into the pocket to pull in another high-priced stalwart.

He understands the need to cultivate young props and it’s going to be interesting to see who emerges as the valedictorian of the rookie class.

Quintin Van Jaarsveld is a former MDDA-Sanlam SA Local Sports Journalist of the Year and a former three-time Vodacom KwaZulu-Natal Sports Journalist of the Year. Formerly the sports editor and Outstanding Journalist of the Year award winner at The Fever Media Group, deputy editor at eHowzit, editor at and senior staff writer at, he boasts over 15 years’ experience and is currently a freelance sports writer.

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