Bulls v Leinster: Five takeaways as Springboks hopefuls ‘obliterate’ lacklustre Irish internationals

James While
Elrigh Louw of Bulls during the United Rugby Championship

Elrigh Louw of Bulls during the United Rugby Championship.

Following the Bulls’ thrilling 25-20 United Rugby Championship semi-final victory over Leinster, here are our five takeaways.

The Top Line

An extraordinary display of disciplined set-piece and aerial rugby, forged by their pack and driven by the magnificence of Willie Le Roux saw the Blue Bulls make their second URC Final as once again the much vaunted Leinster team, featuring 17 test internationals, fell apart at the penultimate hurdle of potential silverware.

Three Bulls tries from Johan Goosen and Sergeal Petersen (2) were enough to create a five-point margin as Leinster managed to cross the whitewash twice through James Lowe, easily the best Irish player on the park, and eighth man Caelan Doris.

It was a match of high drama – one that was decided by excellence around the basics of the game and huge dominance in the setpiece, breakdown and air from the home side as they exerted a stranglehold on Leinster that the visitors simply couldn’t find a way of breaking down. It was a brilliantly planned strategy for Jake White and his Bulls charges, one that the team executed flawlessly and one that Leinster simply couldn’t find the key to unlock nor the battering ram to break it down.

Defensive Simplicity

With Le Roux, David Kriel and Goosen supporting their pack superbly through intelligent exit, tactical kicking and clever territorial gains, it was the Bulls back-row, Marco van Staden, Elrich Louw and Player of the Match Cameron Hanekom that simply obliterated the much vaunted Irish test trio of Caelan Doris, Josh van der Flier and Ryan Baird.

The Bulls’ breakaways might not have the reputation of their opponents, but they simply powered them off the park in a brilliant and suffocating display of rush defence and ruck competition. With Kreil and Harold Vorster leading by example and blitzing off the line, Leinster found themselves on the back foot when taking the ball in hand, driven back by the onslaught of the committed Bulls defence. Even Jamison Gibson-Park, a world-class scrumhalf, suffered. He was the one Leinster player that got his side going forward with intelligent kicking in the first 30 minutes but as the Bulls defence got cooking, Gibson-Park became a lateral, shuffling shadow of his usually direct self.

A word too for Elrich Louw and his interplay with le Roux and Goosen – his clear role in holding width on the right flank of the Leinster defence caused Jordan Lamour and the Irish back three no end of issues as the big flank’s height allowed him to give the Bulls’ aerial game a lot of continuity.

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Attacking Rigour

For all the defensive simplicity, the Bulls’ attack was also a back-to-basics kind of thing. Using the rarified atmosphere of the Highveldt and the uncertainty the ball travel gives to visiting teams, the way the Bulls controlled the kicking battle was one of the key reasons for this famous victory.

There was a clear plan by White to handle the ball left to right, but to attack the left touchline (away from Lowe’s counters and clearance kicks) with the boot.

The Bulls employed the ‘Toulouse double ten’ approach, using Goosen to ignite the moves along the backline, with Kriel the key man if they needed to crash it up and recycle, whereupon Le Roux would emerge as that second fly-half and track the play across the park to the other flank with his brilliant long raking kicks.

This allowed the Bulls to get their big loose forwards in positions where the Leinster rush defence was stretched and moving into scramble, and it’s no co-incidence that two of the Bulls tries came from them maintaining width and getting behind Leinster with intelligent grubbers and great ball recovery.

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Lacklustre Leinster

Leinster looked tired and like a team looking forward to a long hard break. Their world-class front row had one of its worst outings of the year with Wilco Louw taking Andrew Porter apart on the Leinster loosehead as the power and technique of the Bulls turned a pre-match area of concern into a battle they, rather surprisingly, won convincingly.

The back row and centres struggled to win their contests, too; Leinster tried everything they could to unlock the Bulls rush defence, a line that had kept them neutered in the first forty and in the second half it was clear that they wanted Robbie Henshaw and, latterly, Jack Conan running off pops at pace directly into the 10/12 channel of the Bulls, but the hosts were simply too well organised and too committed in heart and mind for that tactic to get them very far. Sure, Leinster reacted well and tried something different, but in truth, they looked leg-weary and perhaps struggling with the rarefied atmosphere in Pretoria.

But whilst the front and back rows struggled, Joe McCarthy was one thing that should put a massive smile on the Irish faces. The big lock was relentless as he came up against one of the rising stars of the Springbok game in Ruan Nortije, and McCarthy edged the battle in every way. Often on the line of legality, the second row created carnage with his ruckwork and massive tackle count, and it’s clear that the New York-born Irishman is one to watch.

Elsewhere, Lowe again shone despite the result, scoring yet another try- his industry wasn’t to be faulted as he popped up everywhere to try and break the shackles of the Bulls defence, scoring a vital try in the first half. However, despite the efforts of McCarthy and Lowe, Leinster reached a weary end to their season, one where they once more underachieved and one where some serious questions will be asked of both their on-field and off-field leadership.

The 16th Man

For any neutral watching this match the variance in interpretation of legality around the breakdown and tackle line was, at times, beyond bizarre. This is a semi-final and as such should be officiated to a standard that is commensurate to the match.

Planet Rugby generally doesn’t comment deeply on the performance of the match officials, but some of the things seen at Loftus on Saturday defined comprehension, and it would be doing the game a disservice, not to mention them.

After whistling three Bulls tackles off the ball in the first half, to watch Le Roux, the Bulls crucial playmaker, taken out with the cheapest of late shots by Ryan Baird and then to leave the pitch as a result of the illegal tackle, was absolutely unforgivable. Players need protecting and this was a deliberate cheap shot off the ball that resulted in an HIA. What more do you need for a TMO check?

 

That was just the half of it; whilst the Bulls ruck offside line was seemingly calculated with laser precision and AI Trigonometry with every transgression enthusiastically pinged instantly. Yet at one Bulls ruck, McCarthy was allowed to stay on the wrong side, to trap the ball in, then reach up and pull the Bulls scrum half in whilst lying prone on the ground.

Rather than ping one of the three obvious offences, the referee obligingly coached the Leinster player’s technique, a complete abdication of his responsibilities.

There were so many marginals – head shots, clothesline tackles, blocking runners- and the uncertainty of the whims of the officials took so much away from this thrilling encounter.

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