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'La Rochelle's pack is 1,000kgs, so I learned a lot of things'

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

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Jake White was keen to emphasise how one swallow doesn’t make a summer, that a URC semi-final win over Leinster can’t be the be-all and end-all of the Bulls’ maiden season in the revamped PRO14 that was dominated the past four years by the Irish province. And yet, despite his insistence that there is one more hurdle to vault, there was so much to admire in Friday night’s relentless RDS running of the Bulls.

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It was 37 weeks ago, down the road at the nearby Aviva Stadium, where the Bulls were last let loose in Dublin. That was a chastening experience, a brutal first-game URC welcome where they fell 17 points behind inside 13 minutes and played the whole way through like they hadn’t got off the plane.

They certainly made their presence felt this time around, though, the one-point scoreboard margin (27-26) flattering the well-beaten Leinster whose consolation clock-in-the-red converted try misleadingly massaged the end-game numbers.

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Bulls captain Marcell Coetzee speaks about beating Leinster for the first time
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Bulls captain Marcell Coetzee speaks about beating Leinster for the first time

Mention of planes, that was an adventure in itself in the Bulls getting back to Ireland nine months after their first visit, the South Africans arriving in dribs and drabs via a multitude of different flights and spot-off points – Amsterdam, Frankfurt and Dubai were three places named by White – due to a lack of seats in getting in the air ASAP following their quarter-final win over the Sharks in Pretoria and making it up to Ireland in plenty time to sow it into the champions.

Their last-four game done, they must now wait and watch. A win for the Stormers on Saturday will see the Bulls back at the airport to commence their travel to Cape Town for next weekend’s showpiece final, an all-South African decider that would be one in the eye for the critics who said the presence of these southern hemisphere franchises in a European tournament was nothing but a gimmick.

Of course, that derby deal isn’t yet sealed. A win for Ulster would see them become the highest-ranked team in the final and bag them the hosting rights, radically altering the Bulls’ fluid travel plans as a 160km bus ride north up the Irish M1 would be all that is needed to whisk them to Belfast rather than a 10,000kms plane journey south.

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While the Bulls wait and see what unfolds, let’s allow White to wallow in the significance of their humbling of Leinster. “It’s up there,” said the World Cup-winning coach when asked to rank the success in the pantheon of his list of numerous great days of coaching. “It’s an incredible Leinster team that dominated European rugby the last couple of years.

“I looked at their record, 225 games in PRO14, lost 21. They are international players. What is really pleasing is we started with them in week one and the learnings and the understandings of what we needed to do the next time we played them were obviously evident. That is why I am so excited because it is not just the fact that we beat them, it’s that the group has grown significantly in the last nine months.”

Having watched La Rochelle decisively put the squeeze on Leinster 13 days earlier in the European final in Marseille, the wily White had his homework clinically done to ensure there was no repeat of last September’s 31-3 Dublin defeat, not even after the Bulls had slipped seven early points into arrears on a June night where the wild weather was four seasons in one.

“We have been very good in our forward play historically but I really enjoyed the interchanges, the first try, that little play and we scored, the interplay between backs and forwards. Generally, I am very happy because of the fact that we have learned so much. Our forward pack was outstanding, turned a couple of balls over.

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“The key was not to give them any set-piece in the beginning so we didn’t kick the ball out, we kept the ball in. With the weather, there were some unforced errors by Leinster, they knocked the ball on a few times which they don’t generally do and that helped us as it broke the rhythm of their attack. It’s a great win but a couple of things did work in our favour.

“A lot has been said about Leinster over years. One thing they are very good at is they start very well and they generally build scoreboard pressure and get the other team to chase them. When we defended that first couple of minutes, turned the ball over, put the ball down the field, that changes the momentum of the game. All of a sudden we were up and the game becomes different. To be fair, Leinster showed they are also human. They had to chase the game and made one or two mistakes.”

The generous hosts certainly made multiple errors but the powerhouse reputation that the four-in-a-row champions Leinster have crafted over the years in this tournament is something White definitely covets. He sure wants his Bulls to be spoken in time with the same kind of reverence. “One swallow doesn’t make a summer,” he shrugged during his 20-minute post-game media briefing in Dublin.

“We just won one game against Leinster. It’s great that our progression looks like it does but there are a lot more things I would like to do, a couple of signings we still want to get in place. The La Rochelle pack is probably 1,000 kilograms so there are a lot of things I learned there as well in terms of having a massive pack of forwards.

“We are not close to where we want to be but without being arrogant, playing in the URC final in year one and being in the semi-final of the Currie Cup back home is something that is fantastic for our union and we want to keep growing and keep getting better, no different to Leinster. Leo (Cullen) will say the same message.

“They felt short twice this year and it is not really like them but they will be a force to reckon with again. One thing that Leinster have proved is that it is not a one-hit-wonder, they will be in and about the playoffs next year like they were last year and the year before and that is what the Bulls have got to get to, the position where every time we are in a competition we have got to be there at the back end. So far so good but one swallow doesn’t make a summer.”

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