John Mitchell Bulls Super Rugby tenure debut ended in joy after his team hustled, hurried and physically hammered the Hurricanes in winning 21-19 at Loftus.
The win wasn’t pretty but who cared. It was a win for the Bulls in Super Rugby and against Kiwi opposition. There haven’t been many of them in the last few seasons.
Mitchell, the former All Blacks, Force, Lions and USA coach, was always going to improve the lot of the Bulls. But not many in Pretoria believed it would be in the first match of the season.
My Sport24 column earlier in the week detailed the Bulls would be a different animal under Mitchell.
I wrote: ”The Hurricanes are in Pretoria this weekend but whereas a year ago there would be been trepidation from Bulls and South African fans, there is a sense of anticipation and a genuine belief that the Bulls, at home, could surprise one of the tournament favourites.
The optimism is because of John Mitchell’s arrival at the Bulls. Mitchell is no Messiah and no miracle worker, because no coach is. But he is a damn fine coach, having been at the helm of the All Blacks, the Western Force and the Lions. He was also Clive Woodward’s England forward coach.”
Less than 10 000 made it to Loftus, which was a statement from the rugby faithful of their deep dissatisfaction with the damnation of the 2017 season. But more efforts like the determined and courageous one displayed against the Hurricanes will have that crowd attendance doubling and trebling before the season’s international break.
The Bulls, who edged ahead with five minutes to go, deserved the victory. They played with greater intent, defensively upset the Kiwis with physicality and also discipline. The Bulls forwards were also stronger in the set piece and had a half a foot gainline advantage in the collisions.
Mitchell is a coach who is uncompromising on match conditioning and basic fitness. You’d like to think every professional coach should be, but Mitchell is renowned for his teams being among the fittest. The Bulls certainly looked to the better off at the final whistle, with the altitude and opening match strains delivering hurtful body blows to the Canes.
The New Zealanders were stilted and lacked cohesion but that’s because the Bulls physically got stuck into them and also showed very good defensive line speed.
The Hurricanes have often started the tournament slowly and worked their way into form, so don’t be too eager to write them off on the basis on a first-up away defeat. The victory would always be of greater significance to the Bulls than the Hurricanes. The latter have a winning culture and the Bulls have for so long now been a team of battered individuals, playing with the added burden of their title-winning predecessors.
Again, the obvious is how quickly a very good coach can turn things around
The Bulls applied their mind to the basics and also showed the work they have been putting in on improving their offload game. They also showed in patches that they have an understanding of when to hold, when to offload and when to pass.
It’s a big win for the Bulls and it should be celebrated.
Who knows how the fortunes of the two teams will develop but on this night, in Pretoria, the home team showed there is still a set of horns on the Blue Bull.
And that’s a good news story for South African rugby and also the merits of Super Rugby.
How we called a Bulls win
15 Divan Rossouw 14 Travis Ismaiel, 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 Burger Odendaal (captain), 11 Johnny Kotze, 10 Handre Pollard, 9 Andre Warner, 8 Hanro Liebenberg, 7 Thembelani Bholi, 6 Roelof Smit, 5 Lood de Jager, 4 RG Snyman, 3 Frans van Wyk, 2 Jaco Visagie, 1 Pierre Schoeman
Substitutes: 16 Adriaan Strauss, 17 Lizo Gqoboka, 18 Conraad van Vuuren, 19 Nic de Jager, 20 Marco van Staden, 21 Embrose Papier, 22 Marnitz Boshoff, 23 Duncan Matthews
15 Matt Proctor, 14 Julian Savea, 13 Vince Aso, 12 Ngani Laumape, 11 Wes Goosen, 10 Ihaia West, 9 TJ Perenara, 8 Gareth Evans, 7 Ardie Savea, 6 Brad Shields (captain), 5 Sam Lousi, 4 Vaea Fifita, 3 Ben May, 2 Ricky Riccitelli, 1 Toby Smith
Substitutes: 16 James O’Reilly, 17 Chris Eves, 18 Alex Fidow, 19 Murray Douglas, 20 Blade Thomson, 21 Jamie Booth, 22 Beauden Barrett, 23 Ben Lam