Success, say the wise men, is not a destination. Rather, it is a life-long journey that goes hand in hand with hard work, dedication, enthusiasm and a craving for performance.
And for the Blue Bulls Rugby Union (BBRU), at that stage the Northern Transvaal Rugby Union, the life journey to a culture of pride, passion and championship glory started way back in 1938 when it broke away from the Transvaal Rugby Football Union (TRFU).
It didn't take long for the Light Blue jersey with the red Barberton daisy on the left of the chest to gain a special place in the hearts and minds of the Bulls supporters. Despite the growing pains that are unavoidable obstacles in the progress of any new independent provincial union, it was clear from the outset that a formidable young giant had entered the South African rugby scene, never to leave again and destined to repeatedly make its mark with one lasting impression after another.
CURRIE CUP GLORY
Right from their first year of existence, the Light Blues had a formidable team on paper, which included eight Springboks: Tallie Broodryk, Danie Craven, Ferdie Bergh, Roger Sheriff, Lucas Strachan, Ben du Toit, Harry Martin and Nic Bierman. On the field, however, this imposing list of great names gave a disappointing performance and missed the opportunity to immortalise themselves in the history books as the first Northern Transvaal rugby team to become the holder of the Currie Cup.
The Blue Bulls' name was first engraved on the Golden Cup named after Sir Donald Currie in 1946. Even now, experts regard the Bulls' first Currie Cup winning team as one of the strongest ever to don the Light Blue jersey.
Six members of the 1946 team later became Springboks: Hannes Brewis, Fonnie du Toit, Jorrie Jordaan, Flip Geel, Fiks van der Merwe, Louis Strydom and Daan Retief. Retief initially played in the wing position, but later became a Springbok loose forward.
Some players such as the centres, Hannes de Villiers and Attie Botha, were unfortunate in the sense that Springbok colours were not awarded in 1946, as a result of the bloody Second World War, but only in 1949 again. Both they, as well as the lock Doerie van Deventer, must have come very close to wearing the green and gold.
Brewis, Springbok fly-half and one of the great rugby heroes in the forties and early fifties will never forget Saturday, 28 September 1946. The Light Blues not only won the Currie Cup for the first time, but that same evening Brewis married Priscilla Wilcocks of Bloemfontein.
Brewis, who succeeded with two drop goals in the game (one with the left foot and one with the right foot), received the ball in his own twenty-two, two minutes before the final whistle. With an enormous kick, he tried to get the ball rolling out in the northern corner, but the ball rolled and rolled and the Western Province full-back, Con de Kock (with the score standing at 9-8 in favour of WP) nonchalantly waited for it to roll out. When the ball jumped back in field, however, De Kock noticed Lourens storming down at full pace and, realising the danger, kicked hastily at the ball but missed it completely! Lourens scooped it up and scored an opportunistic winning try, the final score 11-9.
That was a final with many highlights. Poor De Kock himself succeeded with a magnificent penalty; the WP lock Bubbles Koch dived to the try line over a number of defenders; and the WP hooker, Jack Vos, reached the try line equally spectacularly.
The 1946 heroes were followed in their Currie Cup glory by the teams in 1956, 1968, 1969, 1973, 1974, 1975, 1977, 1978, 1980, 1981, 1988, 1991, 1998, 2002, 2003 and 2004 - when the Bulls were the sole winners - as well as those of 1971 (along with Transvaal) and those of 1979 and 1989 (along with Western Province) when they shared the most coveted provincial rugby crown in the country.
During the 1956 final at Kingsmead, the well-known cricket ground in Durban (King's Park had not yet been built) the wind was almost gale force. During this exciting and titanic struggle the two fly-halves, Thys van Zyl (Northern Tvl) and the later Springbok Keith Oxlee, kicked often. Five minutes before the final whistle, Schalk van Dyk (flank) scored a try that allowed Northern Transvaal to win by 9 points to 8.
The golden years of the Light Blues - also known as the era during which the late Brigadier Buurman van Zyl established himself as the most successful Bulls coach to date - started in 1968. There are those among the experts who believe that this team, which beat Transvaal convincingly by 16-3 in the final, is a strong contender for the title of the best Bulls team ever.
Ten members of the 1968 champion team were, or later became, Springboks. They were Willem Stapelberg, Alan Menter, Piet Uys, Mof Myburgh, Polla Fourie, Johan Spies, Frik du Preez and Thys Lourens. The team lost only one game - against the British Lions, after they were still strong contenders after half-time.
The final match victory of 28-3 that the 1969 team, with nine Springboks in its ranks, achieved will long be remembered as the show-down in which Frik du Preez, a legend in his own time, "dropped, placed and scored".
The team of 1971 did not lose a single game and was most unlucky to play to a draw against Transvaal at Ellis Park in Johannesburg. The controversy which surrounded Transvaal's equalising points - a try by prop Theo Sauerman - once again emphasized the necessity of totally objective referees, especially for Currie Cup finals.
In 1980, the Bulls rewrote the record books with their record breaking 39-9 victory over Western Province in the Currie Cup final at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria. This was also, with one or two changes, the team that beat the Free State by 23-6 in 1981.
The 1980 team, captained by Naas Botha for the first time, only lost against the British Lions and, surprisingly, against Natal. But the team’s performance in the final was the best ever by a Northern Transvaal team. Twelve of the final heroes were Springboks or became Springboks thereafter. There were also ten Springboks in the Western Province team.
The championship teams of 1987, 1988 and 1989 (although the latter team shared the Currie Cup) set new points and try scoring records with a totally new rugby approach and heralded a new era. The Light Blue pack were devastating, allowing Botha, who soon became known as the Golden Boy of Pretoria with his mop of blond hair, to dictate the game from the fly-half position with his expert boot, keen insight and judgment.
Which Light Blue supporter will ever forget the final in 1987, when a brilliant Botha put all the Bulls' points on the board in their 24-18 victory over Transvaal on a sopping wet field at Ellis Park?
In 1991, Botha was in action in his last final, when he led the Bulls to a 27-15 victory over Transvaal at Loftus.
Seven years later, it was Springbok scrum-half Joost van der Westhuizen's turn to receive the Currie Cup on behalf of the Bulls. The Bulls beat the star-studded Western Province team by 24-20 in the final at Loftus Versfeld.
More than ever, the 1998 champion team gave shape to the Bulls' culture of passion, pride and a will to win. On paper, they should never have won the Currie Cup, because the striped jerseys - with nine Springboks in their ranks - should have been the winning side according to the law of averages.
The two Bulls who will probably remember the final for a long time, are the wings Conrad Breytenbach and Wim Meyer. They scored the winning team's two tries - Breytenbach in the first minutes of the game and Meyer in the second half.
Ruben Kruger, the regular captain, who could not play in the Bulls' last two games of 1998 as a result of a knee injury, said after their victory over Western Province in the final that the team’s success could be ascribed to the fact that "the Light Blue jersey made every player's heart beat faster. We were a happy team and we wanted to win. Eugene (van Wyk, die coach) and his supporting team were fantastic. They bent over backwards to accommodate us. And the fact that Eugene made very few changes to the team during the season gave every player self-confidence. You weren't fighting for survival. You were given the chance to learn from your mistakes."
It was almost a miracle that the Bulls reached the final in 1998. In the semi-final against Natal at Loftus, the 40 000 spectators were overawed as they watched one of the greatest fight-back efforts in the history of Light Blue rugby.
In more than one respect, the Bulls' triumph of 31-17 over Natal was remarkable. After André Joubert's second try early in the second half, which stretched the Sharks' lead from 10-3 to 17-3, even their coach, Eugene van Wyk, believed that they had no chance. But whatever Bulls captain Joost van der Westhuizen told his team while Gavin Lawless was setting up for the conversion of Joubert's second try, it made them realise that it was now or never. Suddenly, they started playing with new life and new direction, although there had already been a marked improvement in their scrummaging before half-time.
The last 12 minutes were dramatic. First, the flank Nicky van der Walt put the Bulls ahead with a magnificent try following Van der Westhuizen's brilliant opportunistic play and ground work. And the last nail went into the Natal coffin when the Bulls were awarded a penalty try after Grant Esterhuizen was tripped on his way to falling on the ball in the in-goal area.
In 2002, the team did not expect to win any trophies, and in fact had to ensure a place in the semi-finals just to be assured of further participation in the Currie Cup. Slowly but surely, the team started to turn heads and pull off unexpected victories. Still, when they did manage to qualify for the semi-finals, they were in fourth position on the log, but they caused the upset of the tournament by ousting the log-leading Natal Sharks in pouring rain in Durban. The final was a more one-sided affair, with the Blue Bulls always on top of the Lions in their 31-7 victory.
This win sparked a new era of domination for the Blue Bulls as players like the Bothas: Bakkies, Ettienne and Gary, the Cronjés, Geo and Jacques, Victor Matfield, Derick Hougaard, Richard Bands and John Mametsa, to name but a few, became household names and stepped into the record books to fill the shoes of the many great players who came before.
The 2003 final, where they beat the Sharks 40-19 and the 2004 final, where the Cheetahs were toppled 42-33, completed the hat-trick and confirmed the Blue Bulls as the pace-setters in the new millennium.
THE HEROES (ON THE FIELD)
Over the years, the Blue Bulls have produced many heroes, of whom Frik du Preez and Naas Botha most captured the imagination. They were amongst that very special breed of players who made a lasting impact on rugby, even long after their playing days were over.
Du Preez was lauded in many ways, inter alia being nominated by the authoritative magazine SA Rugby as the South African player of the century, and was the first South African to be honoured, along with Dr Danie Craven, in the International Hall of Fame in Auckland, New Zealand.
Botha would probably have rewritten the record books far more often had it not been for apartheid, which robbed him of the opportunity to play regular test rugby. He was both a brilliant kicker and a true strategist.
The unofficial Blue Bull heroes, who made Loftus their own, were:
- Lucas Strachan, who was a sterling Springbok flank before the breakaway in 1938 and thereafter. He was the first of the truly great Springbok rugby players produced by the Blue Bulls. And after his playing days, he achieved fame as both coach and selector. He will also be remembered for his enthusiastic team talks and witty speeches. In today's club rugby, teams compete for the Lucas Strachan Shield.
- Hannes Brewis, who was one of the best South African fly-halves of all times. In the ten tests that he played for the Springboks between 1949 and 1953, Brewis was never on the losing side, and this great playmaker graced the Light Blue side when they won the Currie Cup for the first time in 1946. Brewis was renowned for his speed and deadly drop goals. In his playing career, he was regarded as probably the best fly-half in world rugby, and together with Fonnie du Toit, he formed the legendary halfback pair of the Light Blues and the Springboks.
- Tom van Vollenhoven, the brush-cut wing who appeared on the scene in 1955, would probably have been one of the greatest heroes if he had not gone off to play professional rugby so early in his career. He was the kind of player who captured the imagination. His try for the Light Blues against the Junior Springboks in 1955, when he beat one player after another in spectacular a zigzag run of almost 80 metres, is still lauded as the try of all tries.
- Louis Schmidt played only two tests as Springbok flank, but for the Light Blues this man with the moustache, known for his wildly enthusiastic sprints, was a true hero who also made his mark as captain. Schmidt, who ran out in 63 games for the Light Blues in the fifties and sixties, is generally regarded as the first player to whom the epithet "Blue Bull" was applied.
- Frik du Preez is probably the Light Blue hero of all heroes. The Springbok lock and flank was not only a dazzling player on the field, but was equally popular off the field. Together with Jan Ellis, he held the SA record for the most tests (38) for a long time, while he and his closest friend, Mof Myburgh, both played a total of 109 matches for the Light Blues. Actually, Du Preez and Myburgh were inseparable, and Myburgh also proved to be a hero of note. Du Preez's line-out work was practically unequalled, despite the fact that he was rather short for a lock. His powerful sprints struck fear in the hearts of his opposition, while he also kicked for posts for the Springboks and Northern Transvaal and put away some magnificent drop goals. How popular he was, even outside Pretoria, is apparent from the fact that he was carried, shoulder high, off the field after his last game at Newlands in Cape Town. Frik retired at the end of the 1971 season.
- Thys Lourens only played three tests as flank for the Springboks, but he ran out for Northern Transvaal in no less than 168 games, 84 of which he captained. He played in eight Currie Cup matches and was on the losing side only once. He gained his popularity with his clever resourcefulness, both on and off the field. And the partnership he established up with that most renowned of all Light Blue coaches, the late Brigadier Buurman van Zyl, was one of the pillars on which the Blue Bulls built their dominance of the Currie Cup scene in the seventies.
- Naas Botha was, without doubt, the most controversial Light Blue hero ever, because no-one was ever neutral about him. People either loved him or couldn't stand him. Just like his predecessor three decades earlier, Hannes Brewis, Botha was a genius at fly-half and the greatest points machine South African rugby has ever known. Amongst the Light Blue supporters, he was one of the greatest heroes of all time. But outside Northern Transvaal he was much maligned, mainly for incidents on and off the field and because the supporters of other teams feared him, and with good reason.
Botha's popularity was vested in his playing technique and his excellence with the boot. He was the greatest match winner SA rugby has ever seen and, right from the beginning, when he made his first appearance as a 19-year old for the Light Blues in 1977, he set the tongues wagging. Botha was fetched by Brig. van Zyl from the Tukkies under-20 team, even before he made the University of Pretoria's first team. And it was the brigadier who chose him as captain of the Blue Bulls in 1980 over many other more senior players.
When Botha made his first-class debut in 1977, he could never have dreamed that he would still be on the scene sixteen years later, piling on one points record after another and becoming the cog in the wheel of his team. His influence on South African rugby is almost immeasurable, because he was one of a select group of Springboks: He was a genius. His insight into and knowledge of the game and its rules, and his ability to motivate players, made him the ideal captain.
- Uli Schmidt, son of Louis Schmidt, was the prince of hookers thanks to his fiery performance and expertise. If he had been able to play test rugby on a regular basis, he would probably have been regarded as one of the world's greatest hookers. During the Cavaliers tour of 1986, the legendary All Black lock, Colin Meads, described Schmidt as the world's best hooker.
- Johan Heunis was the gentleman of South African and Northern Transvaal rugby, and probably the best full-back the Light Blues had ever had. Except for the scrum-half position, he played and excelled in all the back positions for the Light Blues. In 1989, Heunis was nominated as SA Player of the Year.
- In 2001, the scrum-half Joost van der Westhuizen became the first-ever player to represent the Springboks in 100 matches. This was in the test against England at Twickenham in London, the same stadium where he played his 50th game for the Springboks in 1998. He holds the record for the most tests (78) and the most test tries (35) and will go down in the annals of South African and Blue Bull history as the best scrum-half ever.
THE HEROES (OFF THE FIELD)
Professor Fritz Eloff and Brigadier Buurman van Zyl will be remembered as the greatest Blue Bulls heroes off the field.
Prof. Eloff was the chairman of the Northern Transvaal Rugby Union for 26 years, and one of the most acclaimed and respected rugby personalities in South Africa. He was also Deputy Chairman of the South African Rugby Board for 15 years, member of the International Rugby Board for 27 years as well as chairman for a term, and co-chairman of the SA Rugby Football Union (SARFU).
Brig. van Zyl remains the most successful coach the Blue Bulls have produced to date. Under his guidance, the Bulls took home the Currie Cup 11 times in 13 consecutive years - nine times as overall winners and twice as sharing champions. Referring to Van Zyl, Springbok lock John Williams said, "For him, it was about fitness, motivation and discipline. In his days as coach, Northern Transvaal won many of their matches in the dying minutes of the game."
And yes, he had first-hand experience of the 'tortures' up on Buurman's koppie at the Police College in Pretoria West. "Wow, and what a helluva experience! They often took us there, because the old man (Van Zyl) believed in it, whether we needed it or not. I think he wanted us to understand, in a psychological sense, that we superior to the other teams."
Williams was privileged to be able "to drink from the full rugby cup", first as a player and thereafter as coach and administrator. He doesn't know whether his remarkable hat trick is a first for Blue Bull rugby, but he is proud of the fact that, as player, he was on the winning side in Currie Cup rugby three times (1973 - 1975) and, a decade or so later, he was the Bulls coach when they won the Golden Cup in 1987 and 1988 and again in 1989 when they shared it with Western Province.
Fonnie du Toit, scrum-half for the Blue Bulls and the Springboks in the era of Hannes Brewis, was the first player to run out in the Light Blue jersey in a 100 games - an achievement that was later duplicated by 23 other players. Du Toit ultimately represented the Bulls in 102 matches.
The record for the most games for the Bulls is held by Burger Geldenhuys. Geldenhuys, who played flank for the Bulls and shares his birthday with Prof. Eloff, represented the Light Blues in no less than 184 matches.
The other Centurions of the Bulls are Naas Botha (179), Louis Moolman (lock, 171), Thys Lourens (168), Adolf Malan (lock, 159), Deon Oosthuysen (wing, 140), Adrian Richter (eighth man, 137), Jacques Olivier (wing, 137), Uli Schmidt (136), Joost van der Westhuizen (133), Tommy du Plessis (scrum-half, 126), Heinrich Rodgers (prop, 116), Willie Kaths (hooker, 110), Mof Myburgh (prop, 109), Frik du Preez (109), Johan Heunis (109), Gerbrand Grobler (full-back, 108), Lourens Camphor (prop, 107), Jan Lock (prop, 106), Pote Fourie (loose forward, 105) FA Meiring (centre/wing, 105), Jannie Claassens (centre, 102) and Johan Lamprecht (loose forward, 101).
THE NEW GENERATION
Under the leadership of Heyneke Meyer, who took over as the Blue Bulls’ new Head Coach in 2001, rugby in the Light Blue fold has headed into an exciting new direction. Meyer has decided that the Bulls will play total rugby. And they laid their first building block of the new playing pattern when they won the Vodacom Cup in 2000. The Bulls played beautiful running rugby and showed that they have enough talent to set the rugby world on fire in the future.
Meyer raised a few eyebrows by getting rid of more established players, opting instead for younger, more committed professionals to work towards the future. This approach yielded dividends and although the team started slowly, they built up confidence under Meyer’s leadership and soon became a team to be feared.
With many of these players still young, and arguably the most professional approach in the South-African set-up, the future looks bright in Pretoria.