Bragging rights in the Vodacom United Rugby Championship’s version of soccer’s ‘Merseyside derby’ will be at stake when South African rivals the Vodacom Bulls host the Emirates Lions at Loftus Versfeld on Saturday.
The 60km highway that runs north-south between Pretoria and Johannesburg crosses the Jukskei River, a natural border dividing two fierce rivals in the aptly named Jukskei derby.
“The proximity of the teams plays a big part in it,” Jake White said of the red-versus-blue rivalry. “It’s probably a bit like the English Premier League’s Merseyside derby between Everton and Liverpool. It’s a massive derby.”
White would know. The former Springbok coach, and current Vodacom Bulls director of rugby, cut his teeth coaching at Johannesburg boys high schools Parktown and Jeppe, and then progressed to the junior provincial structures at Transvaal (now the Emirates Lions) before joining the Springboks as a video analyst prior to the 1995 Rugby World Cup.
“Obviously, people like to believe they have the biggest derby, but I suppose the reason there’s more history to the Jukskei derby is because Northern Transvaal [now Vodacom Bulls] was a breakaway union from Transvaal.”
The split took place in 1938 when clubs that were originally considered to be in the jurisdiction of Transvaal founded the Northern Transvaal Rugby Union and legendary Springbok Danie Craven captained them to an 11-11 draw against Free State in their first home game.
While Craven never made the trans-Jukskei switch in rugby allegiance, there are many players who did.
“There are a lot of players who have moved back and forth between the unions over the years,” said White. “Guys like Uli Schmidt, Hannes Strydom, Rudolf Straeuli, Johan Roux, Gavin Johnson, Chris and Charles Rossouw.
“Johan Ackermann was a Blue Bull who went to Transvaal and Jannie Breedt is another one – he captained Transvaal in the Currie Cup final after starting at Northern Transvaal.”
Springbok centurion Bryan Habana experienced both sides of the rivalry, swapping Ellis Park for Loftus Versfeld in 2005, as did Schalk Brits, Franco Mostert, Marvin Orie and South African born and raised French international lock Paul Willemse.
Flank Cyle Brink, and centres Harold Vorster and Lionel Mapoe, are three current Vodacom Bulls players in the running to face their former team on Saturday, while hooker Jaco Visagie and scrumhalf Andre Warner are two University of Pretoria graduates now playing for the Emirates Lions.
The Vodacom Bulls opened the season with a 31-15 victory over the Emirates Lions at Emirates Airline Park but are coming off their first home loss in the URC, while the Emirates Lions have banked three wins on the road this season.
The Emirates Lions beat fourth-placed Glasgow last week and success at Loftus Versfeld is vital to keep alive their hopes of climbing into the playoff race from 12th place. The Vodacom Bulls (6th) are determined to take advantage of Glasgow’s slip-up to improve their chances of clinching a home quarter-final through a top-four finish.
However, these objectives will quickly evaporate into the thin rarified air at Loftus Versfeld when the kick-off sails deep and form becomes secondary to another chapter in this rich local rivalry.