Jake White says Bulls have to ‘box clever’ before gruelling 10-game URC run

Jake White stands on the field

Jake White says his team have be smart about how they approach the start of their URC season. Photo: Sydney Mahlangu/BackpagePix

Published Oct 11, 2023

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South African teams gearing up for a new United Rugby Championship season in October still takes some getting used to, but now the serious stuff will begin for the Bulls and Lions.

The two Gauteng rivals will square off in their last warm-up game on Wednesday afternoon at Wits University’s rugby ground in Johannesburg (3pm kickoff) before playing their first URC encounter next weekend.

The Bulls will start their campaign against the Scarlets at Loftus Versfeld next Sunday (3pm), while the Lions will host the Stormers at Ellis Park next Saturday (4.05pm).

It’s a tricky start for Jake White’s team as following the opening weekend, they embark on a four-match tour of Europe, where they will take on Ulster (October 29), Zebre (November 4), Cardiff (November 10) and Edinburgh (November 17) before returning to Pretoria for two games against Connacht and the Sharks.

Then it’s two weeks of Champions Cup fixtures against Saracens (home) and Lyon (away) before they travel from France to South Africa for a strangely-scheduled clash against the Stormers in Cape Town – which was also the case last season.

That’s a gruelling run of 10 fixtures in 10 weeks, so it is little wonder that White is set to give his entire squad some game-time against the Lions today.

While the Bulls’ World Cup Springboks – Willie le Roux, Kurt-Lee Arendse, Canan Moodie and Marco van Staden – are still in France, the rest of the group will look to sharpen up in three 30-minute ‘chukkas’ against the Lions this afternoon.

The Pretoria franchise have made about 12 new signings – either fulltime or on loan – in the off-season, and have also added a fresh element in the coaching ranks by recruiting former Springbok lock Andries Bekker from Japanese club Suntory Sungoliath as the forwards coach.

There have been further additions to the management group in the shape of former Bok assistant coach Gary Gold, ex-Bulls and Cheetahs flyhalf Kennedy Tsimba, as well as Phiwe Nomlomo and Jean Tiedt.

The two biggest names who are likely to participate in today’s match are Springbok front-rankers Akker van der Merwe and Wilco Louw, while former Scotland-based flyhalf Jaco van der Walt and fullback Henry Immelman will look to spark the attack.

Hooker Van der Merwe and tighthead prop Louw will add much-needed size and physicality to the Bulls pack, with their ball-carrying and big hits in defence able to rock the opposition.

They will also be hungry to play themselves back into Springbok contention after missing out over the last few years while playing club rugby in England.

The Bulls spent about a fortnight in Stellenbosch on a training camp that ended last week, and should be well integrated ahead of the URC kickoff as they look to go all the way and clinch some silverware after being beaten 33-21 by the Stormers in the quarter-finals in May.

White said: “We have had one of the toughest pre-seasons I have been a part of, and this group has just shown immense levels of commitment and drive throughout.

“So, that has meant we have had to box clever, keeping in mind that the coming season is going to be very long, especially when you consider the number of competitions that we are involved in.

“To the outside, it may look like we have had little pre-season matches, but that is by our design because we are conscious of the workload the team has already gone through.

“The run against the Lions will be an opportunity for us to scrutinise some of the details we have put into place, and also have a real match-simulated feel on some of the combinations available to us for the season.

“And for some of our new recruits, it will be an opportunity for them to get a feel for the jersey ahead of an important season ahead.

“It is an exciting time, and I am sure it is just as exciting for the players because this is that final rehearsal before the opening of our United Rugby Championship campaign.”

@ashfakmohamed