Bulls v WP: A special rivalry that inspires weirdness
Gavin Rich
October 12, 2018
Could a fair proportion of the more extrovert Blue Bull fans be closet Western Province fans? It seems fanciful but don’t make up your mind on that before acquainting yourself with a story told by WP manager Chippy Solomons after a crucial Stormers win at Loftus a couple of years back.

According to Solomons, he and some of the other Stormers team members were greeted warmly at the team hotel before the game by a group of fans who were passionate about their desire to see the Cape team win. What was odd about it though was that they were all dressed in Bulls jerseys.

When he enquired about this anomaly, the group of well wishers promptly removed their jerseys. They were wearing Stormers shirts underneath, and they made it clear they were ready to show them off if the visitors got on top in the game. Which they did, and when they did, it wasn’t just that small group of ostensible Bulls supporters who suddenly became supporters of the opposition.

I saw the phenomenon myself in a Currie Cup match between WP and the Blue Bulls at Loftus in 1998. After a few years of struggle, the Bulls were starting to put it together and boasted a pretty decent team. WP by contrast had lost a few games they should have been expected to win and travelled to Pretoria as clear underdogs.

Before the game there was little evidence of any WP support present. It was all Blue Bulls and a visitor from the Cape would have felt at least a little bit intimidated by the atmosphere.

But the game did not go as expected. Within a few minutes of the start WP were on the board, and they quickly took control. Out came the WP flags and suddenly it seemed that Province jerseys were everywhere.

My colleague Brenden Nel was working for the Pretoria News back then and his employers would have dressed him in a light blue jersey if they could. He was clearly not happy with what he was watching. When the late Ruben Kruger went over on his ankle after being tackled by Christian Stewart early in the game, Brenden turned to the rest of the press box and with a mournful voice said “It’s over”. He reacted as though he had just seen a ship sink, with his family and his beloved dogs on it.

There is an intense rivalry and, at times, some spite in clashes between the two old adversaries. In that same game, when Joost van der Westhuizen, who is sadly no longer with us, got entangled with opposite number Dan van Zyl, the WP man pointed at the scoreboard. It read something like 36-6 to WP.

Van Zyl was jeered by the crowd, but his point had been made. For the record, Bob Skinstad and Breyton Paulse both scored a hat-trick of tries that day as Province secured a rousing victory that installed them as firm favourites for the final between the same two teams a few weeks later.

As it turned out, Brenden was wrong when he said “It’s over”. It wasn’t over for the Bulls, at least not when it came to their Currie Cup aspirations, and they turned the tables on WP in a final that they dominated early on before Province came storming back in the second half. Many visiting Cape fans felt their team had scored a winning try through Chester Williams, only for it to be denied by referee Andre Watson on the basis that he thought the final pass was forward.

Ironically, the same referee had stymied the Cheetahs in similar fashion when WP broke a long trophy drought in an equally close Cape Town final that went the other way 12 months earlier.

My memory of that Loftus final is of Christian Stewart, who should have been so disappointed at being denied a Currie Cup winners medal, asking those of us media people who interviewed him just minutes after the game had ended if we had been entertained.

“That’s all I’m interested in, as long as you were entertained. That’s why we play, to entertain,” said Stewart.

It was a noble sentiment from someone who didn’t know it at the time, but he had played his last Currie Cup game.

Christian’s uncle, Dave, who was a Springbok in the 1960s, will tell you that WP have always been in the business of entertaining, and that the type-set of the Bulls (Northern Transvaal) being about the forwards and the Streeptruie about fancy back play started many decades ago.

Not long after arriving in the Cape from Durban to work for the Argus in 1994, I interviewed Dave for a feature on the WP/Northern Transvaal rivalry. He waxed lyrical about a famous victory that WP scored against the Bulls a few decades ago in a game where the Cape pack was dominated but the backs ran rings around their opponents.

Of course, the perception that the Bulls have the forwards and Province the backs is no longer based on fact. Look at the forward component of the current Bok squad and count the number of WP/Stormers players and the number of Bulls. There is no doubt that there has been a shift in the balance of power up front, even though it is still WP who pay greater homage to the gods of running rugby.

They have to do that, for running rugby has been ingrained into the Cape rugby culture. It was once said that WP supporters care less about whether their team wins than about how they play the game, and there is some truth to it. The Bulls could be described as more pragmatic, they like to just get the job done, and it’s arguably why they have won three Super Rugby titles and the Stormers none.

For much of the time dating back to the 1980s, pragmatic rugby is what the Bulls have done best. With Brigadier Buurman van Zyl coaching, the talismanic veteran Thys Lourens leading the team and Naas Botha orchestrating matters at flyhalf, Northern Transvaal were the dominant team in the second half of that decade. Indeed, for much of that period it was not WP who were the Pretoria union’s main challengers, but Free State.

The two north/south rivals did clash though in an epic final in 1989. WP had enjoyed a great season and were expected to win the decider, and were on course to do so, but Botha dropped a goal minutes from time to force a draw and a share of the trophy.

It was after that game that legendary Bok and WP captain Morne du Plessis produced that memorable quote that a draw in rugby is like kissing your cousin.

Du Plessis had retired by then but WP did get Northerns back during what will be remembered as their golden era from 1982 to 1986, when they won the Currie Cup five years in a row. In 1986 they beat the Lions (Transvaal) in the final and in 1984 they beat the then B Section province, Natal, but the other three years saw them win comprehensively against the Bulls.

The Bulls got Naas Botha back from his stint in America in the late 1980s, and with it came the return of their mojo. They beat Transvaal in an epic 1987 final - one of Naas Botha’s finest games - and then just edged Province a year later as a prelude to another memorable epic between the two teams in the 1989 final.

After dominating the league phase of the Currie Cup, Northerns went to Cape Town for that final as clear favourites to clinch their third successive title. But WP, in what was to be their skipper Carel du Plessis’ last game, hung in and then, in what looked like being a fitting fairytale finish to a glittering career, Du Plessis went over in the corner to level the scores.

Those who were there talk about how the Riaan Gouws conversion that would have given WP the victory and the title outright looked like it was sailing towards the uprights, only for a sudden gust of wind to push it away from the posts at the last second. So it was another draw, another one of those incestuous situations that Morne du Plessis had described, and exactly 10 years on from the first occasion.

WP and the Bulls have only met in one final since 1989, and that was the 1998 game described earlier, but there is no more longstanding and intense rivalry in South African rugby.

Perhaps what the fans who embraced Solomons and WP while wearing Blue Bulls supporter jerseys were doing was recognising just how seriously the sets of supporters take it too. It is often said of the Manchester United and Liverpool supporters that they have the attitude of “Anyone but them”, when it comes to other teams winning trophies, such is the passion and venom packed into the rivalry.

If there is anything that replicates that in South African rugby, it is WP/Bulls. It is why even though Province are already assured of a home semifinal and effectively need just one point from Saturday’s game to finish top, Chris van Zyl’s team will be going to Pretoria with the same strong desire for victory that they’d take on board for a final.

The result of a Bulls/WP game matters a great deal. It all comes down to the long history between the two proud unions. And perhaps the knowledge that both sets of supporters can be quite weird about it…

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