Bulls banking on Pretoria heat and altitude against Euro giants
REACTION: The Bulls are currently flying the South African flag in Europe, sitting pretty in third place in the United Rugby Championship.
However, Bulls Director of Rugby Jake White said the next three weeks will challenge his team’s lofty status as the country’s front runners.
It starts this coming Saturday (December 9), when they host three-times Champions Cup holders Saracens at Loftus and a week later travel to Lyon to face a struggling Lyon Olympique Universitaire at Stade de Gerland.
When the URC resumes in late December, the men from Pretoria will head to Cape Town for a face-off with arch-rivals the Stormers – a team they have not yet beaten in this competition.
However, their immediate focus is the arrival of one of the best teams in Europe, a Saracens team that includes form Bulls No.9 and six-times capped Springbok Ivan van Zyl.
That is why home-ground advantage is vital for the Bulls.
While the temperature will drop from a mid-afternoon high of 35°C to the low 20s (°C) by the 19.30 kick-off, the cloudy weather and often accompanying thunderstorm will ensure the high humidity (76 percent) will add to the already elevated level of discomfort (created by Loftus’ 1,350 metres above sea level altitude) will; give the Bulls a real edge.
White admitted that the good start to the season – including two wins on the road – was vital in taking ‘momentum’ into their Champions Cup campaign.
“Given the draw we had [a four-match tour from Round Two onwards] and starting without out Springboks, we needed a good start.
“It [four wins in their last five matches] does set you up, but it is going to get tough now,” he said of what awaits them in the next fortnight.
“When we went to Lyon last season [in January this year] they gave us a hiding [31-7],” he said of their previous trip to France.
The earlier match, at Loftus Versfeld, saw the Bulls edge the French outfit 42-36 in a high-scoring affair in December 2022.
For now, their focus is on the English giants.
“I don’t need to tell you anything about Saracens,” White said, adding: “Half of the England team plays for Saracens.
“I am under no illusion how tough the next three weeks are going to be.”
However, in Loftus and its well-documented conditions, the Bulls do have an edge.
“It is tough to play in Pretoria at altitude,” White said.
“We have to make sure we use that as a home-ground advantage.
There are many theories about how to deal with the challenge of Pretoria’s rarified air – but Saracens will not have the luxury of arriving 10 days in advance.
They suffered a home loss (12-18) to Northampton Saints at the weekend.
That leaves Sarries a short turnaround after travel, while the Bulls will have a normal week at home.
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White described his team’s 44-10 demolition of the Sharks at Loftus Versfeld at the weekend as one of the best defensive effort in a long time, while managing the game expertly.
The Bulls, who remained third on the United Rugby Championship standings, produced a clinical performance against the Sharks – outscoring the visitors by six tries to one (a penalty try).
Despite being shaded in terms of possession and territory, the Bulls can look forward to the start of their European Cup campaign with confidence.
White said he is “really proud” about how his players kept their composure against a Sharks team that looked to pile ion some early pressure.
“The transition from defence into attach was outstanding,” he said of his team’s ability to use turnover possession to good effect.
“That is the one area I am really happy about,” the Bulls boss said, adding: “We defended well and when they made a mistake we punished them.
“We also have a very exciting backline,” he said of a combination that includes World Cup winners Willie le Roux, Kurt-Lee Arendse and Canan Moodie – with a vastly improved Stedman Gans busy making the No.13 jersey his own.
White said they are keen to use the same high-tempo game that helped them against the Sharks against Saracens.
“It is not just because the game is at altitude – which is an advantage -0 but we want to play like that.
“The way we want to play is that we want to be multi-skilled – being able to use forwards and backs.
“We don’t always want to outmuscle teams.
“I want us to play again where defensively we are sound, our set piece is sound and attacking-wise we are happy.”
“We scored three tries from first phase, so it wasn’t just power.
“It was using the scrum as an attacking platform.”