The Vodacom Bulls are hitched to Wilco Louw, an 18-wheeler in scrumming terms, who is poised to right what has been a bumpy record on the road and drive them to the top of the Vodacom United Rugby Championship.
The 2023-24 Vodacom URC season brings with it the promise of a fresh start, especially true in Saturday’s tantalising matchup in Belfast where the visiting Vodacom Bulls and hosts Ulster will be determined to atone for a disappointing end to their last campaign.
The Vodacom Bulls’ touring record in the Vodacom URC has been poor. In their inaugural campaign, the men from Pretoria lost six of 11 matches away from Loftus Versfeld, including the Grand Final against South African rivals the DHL Stormers in Cape Town.
The potholes got even deeper last season when the Vodacom Bulls’ blew a tyre in seven of nine road games.
However, the 2023-24 season represents wholesale change for the South African side.
Vodacom Bulls coach Jake White has recruited 12 new players – Louw among them – while he has overhauled his coaching staff by enlisting the services of former USA head coach and Springbok assistant Gary Gold, former Cheetahs flyhalf Kennedy Tsimba (a World Rugby Hall-of-Famer) and ex-Springbok and DHL Stormers lock Andries Bekker.
The Vodacom Bulls are on a mission to shatter past perceptions and turn the tide in their favour. Louw is at the heart of this transformation effort, a hulking man with a reputation for anchoring the scrum.
Louw’s scrumming power is well-documented. The tighthead prop learned his craft at the DHL Stormers, working alongside the likes of Steven Kitshoff and Frans Malherbe, before moving on to ply his trade at Harlequins in the English Premiership.
As a core part of the team that drove Quins to the Premiership title, winning a thrilling final against Exeter Chiefs in 2021, Louw’s reputation has only been enhanced by his time in London.
Still, there was a yearning from Louw to return to South Africa and he jumped at the opportunity to join White’s Bulls.
“My family and I had a good time in England, but we always knew we wanted to come back,” said Louw. “When we got the opportunity to come to the Bulls, we were really excited. It’s good to be back and hopefully we can keep going from strength to strength for the rest of the season.”
Louw’s ability to provide stability in the set piece and drive inexorably forward has made him a poster boy for the Vodacom Bulls’ resurgence. In a league where the scrum is pivotal on the battleground for dominance, Louw’s presence will be crucial, especially when the Vodacom Bulls venture abroad.
In round 2 of this Vodacom URC season, the Vodacom Bulls find themselves in Belfast, ready to take on an Ulster team eager to wash away the bitter taste of last season’s quarter-final shock defeat to Connacht at their Ravenhill fortress.
“Touring and playing away from home is never easy,” Louw said. “Playing against the quality teams that we are going to face on tour, like our first one against Ulster.
“They are a good team and have a very good set-piece and maul, to go with some really good backs. So it’s going to be a very good test for us.”
Ulster had an impressive campaign, finishing the season in second place, but the heartache of their unexpected exit is a wound that still stings. This match marks their first home game of the season, and they are determined to redeem themselves in front of their loyal supporters.
The story of this encounter is about two teams yearning to prove their mettle. While both teams share a recent history of coming off second best, the arrival of Louw at the Vodacom Bulls signifies a change that promises to impact the outcome of this contest.