One of the more enigmatic and polarising figures in rugby union, South African coach Jake White is heading home to take the reins at the Bulls.

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The Pretoria-based Super Rugby franchise have been perennial underachievers in recent seasons, with their fortunes having suffered since their narrow defeat to the Brumbies in the semi-final of the playoffs in 2013, with the Australian side in fact under White’s tutelage at the time.

Since then, the Bulls have finished bottom of the South African conference multiple times and their only visit back to the Super Rugby playoffs came last year, though they were swiftly dispatched by the Hurricanes in the quarter-finals. With the exception of that 2019 season, the Bulls have failed to finish higher than 9th on the overall log since 2013.

White will be leaving Japan, where he has been in charge of Toyota Verblitz, and will hope to be the catalyst that gets them moving back up the South African conference and into contention with the perennial contenders for the trophy in New Zealand.

It’s no easy challenge that lies in front of White, though, whose history in coaching is one of considerable success, albeit over generally short tenures. The Bulls have, for want of a better word, been gutted by player departures during the last year.

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Up front, evergreen hooker Schalk Brits hung up his boots, second rows Lood de Jager, RG Snyman and Jason Jenkins all packed their bags for Europe or Japan, Jannes Kirsten and Hanro Liebenberg made their way to England and Duane Vermeulen headed east for another stint in the Top League.

In the back line, Handré Pollard made the move to Montpellier, whilst Jesse Kriel and Travis Ismaiel also departed for new challenges in different competitions. Short-term replacements were recruited in the forms of Morné Steyn and Nafi Tuitavake, though the sheer weight of departures had the Bulls looking thin, or at least untested, in both the pack and back line heading into the 2020 season.

Those fears proved not to be unfounded, either, as the Bulls slumped to defeat in five of their six Super Rugby games this season before the COVID-19 outbreak brought suspension and a potential premature conclusion to the competition.

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That said, White does have a number of established stars to lean on and who can prove to be the foundation for the franchise’s attempts to rebuild.

Springboks Lizo Gqoboka and Trevor Nyakane are in place in the front row, whilst Juandre Kruger brings experience and physicality to an engine room that was shorn of plenty of star-power last season. In the back row, Marco van Staden feels on the cusp of truly breaking out as a standout international player.

Embrose Papier is catalyst at nine, Burger Odendaal and Dylan Sage are effective options in the centres, and they are flanked by Cornal Hendricks and Rosko Specman on the wings. At full-back, Warrick Gelant is arguably the pick of South Africa’s options at the position when he is fully fit and in form.

Getting those players performing cohesively alongside one another is the initial challenge for White, whilst the other, far larger test comes in the form of building a squad with the quality of depth to push those players for their starting spots, as well as providing all-important injury and international cover. In this area, White will have to really earn his pay cheque.

The Bulls can call on 22-year-old hooker Johan Grobbelaar, 21-year-old lock Ruan Nortjé and 21-year-old back rower Muller Uys, and all three are key to the future of the franchise. Grobbelaar has transitioned well from age-grade rugby and potentially fills the spot vacated by Brits, Nortjé came in under-the-radar despite excellent showings at the U20 level and has honed his craft in the Varsity Cup, whilst Uys is raw, but full of physicality and potential.

Outside of the pack, can 22-year-old Mannie Libbok be turned into the starting fly-half that is capable of filling Pollard’s shoes? There’s no doubting his promise, whether that is at 10 or at 15, and there’s a fair share of Bulls fans who were disappointed to see Steyn arrive and slow Libbok’s progression to become a regular in the starting XV. His role in the team is going to have to be something that White susses out quickly upon arrival in Pretoria.

Something which should potentially be of concern is that, externally at the least, the productivity of the pathway in Pretoria seems to have slowed a little in recent years. Whilst the Stormers churn out players at a steady and impressive rate and the Lions seem to do well identifying late developers and players from the less well-trod paths, and the Sharks’ domination of recent South African U20 contingents in terms of quality, the Bulls’ cupboard is looking a little more threadbare.

Tuks contingent Kudzwai Dube, Marnus Potgieter and Vaughen Isaacs will all be on the radar but may require further blooding in the Currie Cup before stepping up to Super Rugby, and it seems far removed from the times when the Bulls’ pathway was a dominant force in the South African elite age-grade sides.

Lionel April is another Tuks player to keep an eye on, with the full-back likely to have been prominently involved for South Africa at the World Rugby U20 Championship this year if the tournament had not been cancelled. He is a particularly promising player who could be challenging Gelant sooner rather than later at the Super Rugby level.

If there is a silver lining for White, it’s that other players are emerging at key decision-making positions such as Ross Braude (scrum-half) and Ethan Wentzel (fly-half). Lock down potential starters at those positions and it is a big step towards sustained success on the pitch. Paarl Gim products Stravino Jacobs and Dawid Kellerman could offer incisive threats outside of them, too.

There are talents there for White to work with, certainly, though it’s not the abundance of prospects across all positions that some franchises can call upon, nor that the Bulls themselves enjoyed a few years ago when they were far more aggressive in their recruitment of youngsters. The Varsity Cup and Currie Cup competitions are going to have to be closely monitored if the veteran coach is to truly rebuild the Bulls and turn them into the preeminent franchise in South Africa.

He’ll need savvy recruitment from those competitions to put together a competitive side in the short-term, something which will make integrating those talented youngsters smoother and better allow for a successful long-term vision for the franchise.

A silver lining to the current suspension of the season? White has plenty of time on his hands to sit down with his coaches, hours of player footage and an assortment of agents, and make sure that his plan for success in the coming years is as comprehensive and realistic as possible.

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