Bulls in URC conundrum as big guns set to miss Northampton play-off

LOCK Janko Swanepoel is part of the Bulls tour squad in Northampton, and could replace the injured Ruan Nortjé tomorrow. Photo: BackpagePix

LOCK Janko Swanepoel is part of the Bulls tour squad in Northampton, and could replace the injured Ruan Nortjé tomorrow. Photo: BackpagePix

Published Apr 12, 2024


After the hullabaloo around having to use several different flights to get to Northampton, the Bulls are set to field a much-changed team in tomorrow’s Champions Cup quarter-final at Franklin’s Gardens (9pm kick-off, SA time).

But director of rugby Jake White is not resting most of his Springboks out of spite towards SA Rugby, who eventually managed to get most of the tour party business-class seats for their journey to the East Midlands of England.

In a briefing with the media in Pretoria this week before jetting off to London, White said that it is a two-fold approach taking into account the fact that the Bulls will only get back to Pretoria on Monday at various times, which means they cannot train on that day, and the importance of next Saturday’s United Rugby Championship clash against Munster at Loftus Versfeld.

He mentioned that fringe players such as fullback Henry Immelman and flyhalf Jaco van der Walt are being considered for selection against Northampton – and the inclination there is that it is likely to be about as much for their previous experience up north as it is about the first-choice players such as Willie le Roux, Kurt-Lee Arendse and Johan Goosen being given a breather.

Loose forward Nizaam Carr posted a photo on his Instagram Stories at the OR Tambo International Airport alongside Immelman, lock Janko Swanepoel, flyhalf Chris Smith and scrumhalf Zak Burger.

Another Bulls scrumhalf, Keagan Johannes, updated his Instagram Stories with a photo with England women’s football superstar Lauren James in a terminal at London’s Heathrow Airport.

White added that No 8 Cameron Hanekom and flank Mpilo Gumede are back in the squad after they missed the last two games against Leinster and Lyon.

It is understood that other regular starters such as David Kriel and Wilco Louw will also miss out on the Northampton clash.

The thinking behind fielding a largely second-string side at Franklin’s Gardens is a highly contentious one.

One can understand that White has targeted winning the URC title this season, and a key part of achieving that goal is to top the log at the end of the league campaign.

The Pretoria side are currently third in the standings on 45 points, four behind second-placed Glasgow and nine adrift of leaders Leinster.

Munster, who were knocked out of the Champions Cup last weekend by Northampton, are fourth on the URC log on 43 points, so their clash with the Bulls at Loftus Versfeld on April 20 becomes a hugely important encounter in the race for home play-offs.

White spoke this week about managing his squad, and what a tough period of travel it has been for his team in recent weeks – they had a lengthy journey to Wales to face the Dragons on March 23, then moved on to Leinster in Dublin, where after they made their way back to Pretoria to take on Lyon last week, and now they’ve had to fly up north again for the Northampton clash.

The former Springbok coach said that many of his players were nursing niggles and feeling the effects of two away games and the travel involved, as well as the physical effort needed against Lyon despite the 59-19 scoreline.

So, has White made the right call to wrap up his big guns in cotton wool for Munster next week instead of sending them to Northampton?

It isn’t a straightforward scenario. On the one hand you would think that the Bulls want to be ambitious and beat the high-flying Northampton – who are the current English Premiership log leaders – to reach the Champions Cup semi-finals.

But the conundrum that would follow such a great result is the fact that the Bulls wouldn’t be able to play a semi-final or final in Pretoria, due to the current competition regulations stipulating that such fixtures must be held in Europe.

The winner of the Northampton-Bulls quarter-final have been drawn against the winner of the duel of the weekend, which sees Leinster hosting La Rochelle in Dublin.

Due to the seedings after the pool stage, if the Bulls and Leinster win their respective quarter-finals, the semi-final would be played in Dublin, while if it were the Bulls and La Rochelle, the last-four clash would happen at the Pretoria side’s nominated ‘home’ ground Ashton Gate – the regular venue for the Bristol Bears in England.

And, of course, the final has already been scheduled for the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in London on May 25.

So, it would be a long shot, although not an entirely impossible one, for the Bulls to win the Champions Cup with an away quarter-final, semi-final and final.

But now that they’ve decided to put all their eggs into the URC basket, they will hope to go all the way and clinch that trophy.