Why the Bulls are ‘champions’

The Bulls, one of two South African franchises vying for places in the 2007 Super 14 play-offs, are beginning to show some of the qualities that has made the six-time champion Crusaders such a success in this Southern Hemisphere showpiece.

They face the Reds at Loftus Versfeld on Saturday, where a bonus-point win will book them a semi-final place and may even be enough for home ground advantage – depending, obviously, what happens in other matches.

It is the team’s mental toughness and ability to stay calm and focussed under pressure that is making the Bulls such a big threat this year.

The team has learnt how to bounce back from setbacks – both within a game as well as from one game to the next.

In previous seasons – the Bulls have lost in the semi-finals in 2005 and 2006 – the Pretoria-based franchise showed they have the players power.

However, they appeared to lack the mental power to kick on in the play-offs, where they lost 13-23 (to the Waratahs in Sydney in 2005) and 15-35 (to the Crusaders in Christchurch last year).

Their record in Australasia, before 2007, was also held up as an example of a team lacking the mental muscle to go all the way. From 1998 (the inaugural year of franchises in South Africa) till 2006 the Bulls won just four games abroad. This year they won they won three out of five, including back-to-back victories against the Brumbies and Waratahs in Australia.

Then there is their ability to stay calm when the opposition gets off to a flying start. The tough Blues outfit went ahead 9-0 in as many minutes last week. Captain Victor Matfield’s message was simple: “Stay calm, we’ll score more than nine points.”

They did, they scored 20 unanswered points before the Blues managed another penalty (20-12) and then another 20 points before the Blues sneaked a consolation try after the hooter for full-time had already sounded.

It is this ability to overcome a tough draw, a poor start (they had lost two of their first three matches) and stick to their structures in the face of severe pressure that resulted in comparisons with the mental toughness shown by the Crusaders for the past decade.

Bulls coach Heyneke Meyer gave an insight this week into the team’s psyche.

He said winning titles is not the only thing that makes a team or players champions.

“I’ve told the players, and they know me, a champion is not a champion because he wins something,” Meyer told this website.

“Winning something is the result of being a champion, it is part of setting your goals and structures and how he [the player or players and team] conducts himself on and off the field.”

The coach revealed that getting the team to be mentally as brutal as they are in the physical exchanges was one of the key aspects of their preparations this year.

“I work very hard on players’ mental toughness,” Meyer said.

“I went through rough times at the Bulls. This is effectively my third year back [Meyer had a less than successful stint in 2000/2001 before being unceremoniously dumped and then brought back in 2005] and the players know what to expect from me.

“They [the players] know I don’t buckle under pressure.

“The last three years every year we’ve been there [semi-finals]. Three years ago when I took over the Super 14 team again, people said this type of rugby doesn’t work in the [Super 14] competition .. they said that Blue Bull rugby doesn’t work.

“But I’ve always said that if I have a captain and vice-captain with 50-plus Super 14 games and near 50 Tests we will do well.

“I also said it is about leadership – that’s why it was such a big boost to get Wikus [van Heerden] in [signed from the Lions this year], because he’s been there [as captain]. He is a great pillar of support to the other team leaders. I also got Anton [Leonard] back and at the beginning of the year he played a big role.

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