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URC top-four confrontation a battle of wits

Jake White vs. Franco Smith is a battle between two outstanding rugby minds, both with international coaching experience and both leading the charge in this season’s Vodacom URC play-offs.

If rugby is a contact sport, then both coaches have played equal amounts of chess this week in their preparations for their off-field approach to win at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria on Saturday.

Smith, a former Springbok, was a revelation at the Glasgow Warriors and claiming the scalp of White’s Vodacom Bulls at Loftus would be huge on a personal level and in the context of the Scots’ aspirations to finish the league in first place .

Smith played the last of his nine Tests at Loftus against the All Blacks in 1999. The Boks lost 34-18.

Now Smith is looking at a different kind of result and emotion at Loftus, albeit in a different guise and in a different era, with this weekend’s match coming 25 years after the disappointment of the All Blacks defeat and the end of his Test career.

With three rounds of the regular season remaining, the Bulls are in fourth place with 51 points, behind leaders Glasgow Warriors (58).

Smith, who has played and coached in Italy for a number of years, including a spell as coach of the Italian national team, has added an attacking dimension to Glasgow’s armor and Saturday’s blockbuster in Pretoria is being billed as a try festival.

White’s Bulls have scored the most tries in the league, with 68, and the Warriors and Leinster are joint second with 64 tries.

Glasgow recorded 12 wins in the 2023/24 season and ahead of this week’s match, Bulls co-captain Ruan Nortje recognized the league leaders’ potential.

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“They play at an incredible pace and overwhelm teams,” he told reporters.

“This is one of those teams that can sometimes be seven or ten points ahead within a few minutes. They have a good group of players and Franco Smith seems to have built a good culture and knows how to win at Loftus (from his days with the Cheetahs).

Bulls teammate Jannes Kirsten, who made his long-awaited URC debut in a 61-24 win against Ospreys at Loftus two weeks ago, added: “We can see from the way Glasgow attack, and their set piece, there is a lot of South African influence, but the message will be the same: it will be a battle in the setting.

“They have scored the most maul attempts in the league and that is also a good indication of what they are concentrating on. We will also look at how we can expose them in attack, but it comes down to who is going to set the pace and stay in control of the ball and the game they want to play. It will be a good one.”

After their mauling of Ospreys, the Bulls are assured of a place in the last eight, but a first home semi-final is still a possibility if White’s Bulls can maintain their rampant run by steamrolling the Warriors.

“We’re in a really good place, we’re obviously aiming for the home play-offs and it’s still in our hands, so it’s a great position to be in,” Kirsten said. “You have to look at the last three games as a play-off because we have to win to get those home play-offs. Luckily, it’s not about what other teams should or shouldn’t do, or who should win or lose, so we can make the playoffs at home.

“The main focus is to get the points and if we do our bit we can really push on. The next two home games will be very important for us.”

White, who has targeted the URC as the title he wants this season, knows the value of home field advantage when it comes to playoffs. But he also knows that his team can be beaten in Pretoria, as became clear from Munster three weeks ago.

According to White, playing at home is an advantage, but never a guarantee of victory.

There is a lot of respect within the Bulls camp for Smith and what he is building in Glasgow, and there is plenty of honesty among the Bulls players that to win they need to be at their best.

This article was first published in SA Rugby magazine.