Cape Town - It was one thing operating in a Covid-19 ‘bio-bubble’ but facing only South African teams during the long lockdown period put the Bulls in a bubble of their own, according to scrumhalf Zak Burger.
The 23-year-old played a key role in their charge to the top of the Rainbow Cup SA log, having joined the Bulls in February after impressing for Griquas in the 2020/21 Currie Cup, which Jake White’s team had won in January.
But the Bulls’ lack of experience in playing against overseas teams came to the fore in the Rainbow
Cup final, where they lost badly to unfancied Italian club Benetton in Treviso.
Another Currie Cup triumph followed for White’s team in September, but the gap between the South African and European sides was again evident in the United Rugby Championship.
The Bulls pulled off a lone European tour victory over Cardiff in Wales, but lost to Leinster, Connacht and Edinburgh.
Now on a break of a few weeks, the Bulls will hope to kick off 2022 in the right way when they take on Italian side Zebre in Parma on January 8, although that match is still to be confirmed due to Covid-19 travel restrictions.
“What I and the team found is that to play against the same (SA) teams the whole time, you go into certain matches with certain plans, and we have been reasonably successful in South Africa with the manner in which we played,” Burger said.
“But when we went overseas, we performed differently as those players have been playing at that higher level … They haven’t played in their own competitions.
“They still had their Heineken (Champions) Cup and Challenge Cup, and they still played against other countries when it was the PRO14.
“The Irish teams still played against the Welsh and Scottish sides, so it was still that variation to adjust and play differently.
“In South Africa, we were in a kind of bubble when it comes to the playing style, and how we wanted to play.
“It worked well for us, but for sure we’ve had to make some adjustments now.
“In the last two matches on tour it went much better in the United Rugby Championship with the way in which we want to play.”
One aspect Burger picked up is that taking your points when they are on offer is crucial against the European sides, as South African teams don’t get as many opportunities as they would in the Currie Cup.
“We learnt that, especially in the overseas competitions, you have to go through many more phases to get the reward, whether it’s a penalty or scoring a try. In the Currie Cup, we scored tries perhaps quicker,” the former Griquas captain said.
Burger has been the first-choice No 9 for most of the time since Ivan van Zyl left for Saracens last year, but with the return of Embrose Papier from a long-term toe injury, he faces a battle to hold on to a starting berth, with Papier already getting the nod in the recent loss to the Sharks in Durban.
“All four of us (Burger, Papier, Keagan Johannes and Marco Jansen van Vuren) are quite talented as scrumhalves, and we still learn from each other, and there isn’t a bad vibe amongst us. It is a healthy environment between us, and we try to help each other where we can,” Burger said.
“You want as many good nines as possible so that you can just bring someone in if there is perhaps an injury, and that guy can do the same as the one who was starting.”