It is a fact that went by virtually unnoticed, but the Blue Bulls team that will take on Western Province in the Currie Cup semifinal on Saturday shows a remarkable resemblance to the side that trounced the Chiefs by almost 50 points in the Super 14 Final earlier this year.
Bulls coach Frans Ludeke admitted that “continuity” and “play-off experience” will be two key factors in the traditional north-south derby at Newlands on Saturday.
While past results are never a guarantee of any future success, what the Bulls will bring to the party is what they now call ‘street-smarts’.
The Bulls starting XV that will make the trip to Cape Town for the semifinal shows just one change from that which recorded a 61-17 win over the pride of New Zealand, the Chiefs, in the Super 14 Final in May – Francois Hougaard starts on the right wing in place of injured Springbok Akona Ndungane.
There are a few changes to the bench – Bandise Maku for the injured Bok hooker Chiliboy Ralepelle, Rossouw de Klerk as prop cover in place of Rayno Gerber and Gerhard van den Heever in place of Marius Delport.
The key impact players – Danie Rossouw, Pedrie Wannenburg, Heini Adams and Burton Francis – are still intact.
Not many of the WP players have the same kind of play-off experience as the Bulls – who have a host of Springboks that have performed with distinction on the international stage.
Duane Vermeulen has play-off experience with the Cheetahs, Andries Bekker is a member of the all-conquering Bok team and Anton van Zyl has played in a Currie Cup semifinal with the Lions. That’s the Province starting XV.
They have a lot more experience on the bench to call on – Bok veterans Schalk Burger and Ricky Januarie.
But overall the Bulls look the more settled outfit.
The Bulls coach, Ludeke, said this team is still “hungry for success”, despite a number of them having already won a World Cup, a Tri-Nations (some twice), a series against the British and Irish Lions and the Super 14 (many twice).
“At the end of the day it is about players who are still hungry and who have set themselves lofty goals,” Ludeke told rugby365 in an interview.
“These are all guys who have achieved success at various levels.
“However, it has been a while since we have won a Currie Cup outright [the last time was 2004, in 2006 the Bulls and Cheetahs shared the trophy].
“There is a real passion and a hunger to be successful [at domestic level] again,” Ludeke added.
He admitted that it will take a “huge effort” to win at Newlands.
“Western Province have had a great season and they deserve to be there [at home in the semifinal].
“They could so easily have finished top [of the standings] and they also brought through a bunch of youngsters.
“We are gearing up for an enormous battle.”
The Bulls mentor felt that the role that experience will play can’t be undervalued.
“In play-offs experience does play a role, especially if you are under pressure,” he told rugby365, adding: “It is about which team can best handle the pressure and put the opposition under pressure.
“It is tough for players who haven’t been there before and who don’t know how to handle it.
“Experienced players come through in these situations, they react instinctively to situations.”
Ludeke said he changed the “volume” at training sessions this week, as the psychological part of the preparation become far more significant that physical training.
“It becomes more focussed, short and sharp sessions.”
He said the Bulls have managed to get some “rhythm and fluency” going in the last three weeks – with the Boks all back.
“We finished our league campaign on a strong note [against the Leopards] last week.”
Article courtesy of Jan de Koning of Rugby 365Tweet