South Africa

The Bulls and their 11-year Currie Cup drought: Why they will be under pressure more than the Lions

  • The Bulls haven’t added to their 23 Currie Cup titles since beating the Cheetahs in 2009
  • They’ve only won one of the six semi-finals they’ve taken part in since 2009.
  • Their only final appearance in the period they haven’t won the title ended in defeat in 2016.

To make sense of the Bulls’ massive underachievement in the Currie Cup since their 2009 success, one needs to look at Morne Steyn’s career to track the Tshwane-based union’s regression.

Steyn, who played a critical role in the Bulls’ play-off wins against Western Province and the Cheetahs, went on to win the Super Rugby title with the franchise the following year, went to the 2011 World Cup, went overseas and came back without the Bulls adding to their 23 titles.

In that period, the Bulls’ playoff book has been properly blotted. When their 2010 title defence was extinguished by eventual champions the Sharks 16-12, a pattern of failed semi-final assaults started to emerge.

While they failed to make the play-offs in 2011, 2013 and 2019, the Sharks (2012 and 2017), Western Province (2014, 2015 and 2018) stopped them dead in their semi-final tracks.

The 2018 Western Province semi-final was notable for the fact that the game had to deep into extra time to be decided, but didn’t mask the fact that they failed to win the tournament

There also was the thorough 36-16 drubbing at the hands of the Cheetahs in the 2016 final. It’s been grim for the Bulls.

Their failures have been exacerbated by the fact that every other major union has won the Currie Cup at least once in the Bulls’ 11-year drought.

The Bulls, for all their success, went through a full decade not hoisting the Currie Cup for the first time since their formation in 1938 when they broke away from the Lions.

In the 1980s, they went six years without success as fierce rivals Western Province took a firm grip on the domestic trophy in the mid-1980s.

A late 1980s and early 1990s resurgence were quickly quashed by the Sharks (three titles), the Lions (two titles) and Western Province (one) before the surprise 1998 success.

Even that was a fleeting false dawn as the Bulls struggled to keep up with the Lions and Western Province.

Those sides took hold of the title between 1999 and 2001 before the Heyneke Meyer-era put every team in the shade between 2002 and 2004.

That it took the Cheetahs and the emergence of 2019 Springbok World Cup-winning coach and SA Rugby’s current director of rugby Rassie Erasmus showed how powerful the Bulls were.

The Sharks made an intervention under John Plumtree in 2008, but the Bulls were quick to regain their dominance the following year.

The Bulls can take heart from the fact that long Currie Cup gaps aren’t unique to them. Western Province had two dry spells (1986-1997 and 2001-2012) while the Cheetahs had the longest and most famous one between 1976 and 1995.

It’s also worth remembering that the Sharks, who were formed in 1890, had to wait 100 years for their first title.

This may be comforting for the Bulls, but in recruiting well-travelled 2007 Rugby World Cup-winning coach Jake White and a whole host of players, they have made their intentions clear.

They’ve looked the business throughout the season, barring the Pumas defeat, but the pressure of an 11-year drought can be suffocating.

Under normal circumstances, the Bulls would have drawn in a capacity crowd at Loftus Versfeld. Their pre-Covid-19 low attendances aside, the Currie Cup holds a particular reverence in the capital city.

That is some pressure to deal with.

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