This week, Blue Bulls Rugby Union President Willem Strauss will do what he normally does before a big final for the Vodacom Bulls. He’ll phone coach Jake White 10 times and ask if everything’s on track. He’ll phone CEO Edgar Rathbone 10 times and ask if everything is on track. And that should take care of his Wednesday to-do list, before he does so all over again every day until kickoff.
“And they’ll both tell me just to relax. Everything is under control,” says Strauss with a chuckle as the Vodacom Bulls prepare to host the Sharks at Loftus Versfeld this Saturday.
Strauss is adamant there isn’t any sign of complacency around Loftus Versfeld this week, and the rampant dominance of the Vodacom Bulls does indeed suggest everything is under control.
A win will give the Pretoria team its 25th Currie Cup title. It will also make them the first team in 14 years to successfully defend the Currie Cup (the Free State Cheetahs shared the title with the Vodacom Bulls in 2006 and then won it again in 2007). And by virtue of a sporting calendar reshaped by the COVID-19 pandemic, they will become the first team in Currie Cup history to win the title twice in the same year following their January triumph.
Most importantly for Strauss though, a victory will cement the symmetry he sees in the Vodacom Bulls management and performance.
When White joined the Bulls, he did so with memories of being a young boy watching a team that rarely lost a match at Loftus Versfeld. It’s a significant statistic that under Jake White the Bulls have 21 consecutive victories at Loftus. Clearly, those boyhood memories ran deep.
Strauss has brought direction and a boundless passion that he’s carried to all the major schools and rugby clubs in Pretoria and surrounds as the community has bought into this vision.
“When I took over as president, the first six months were very challenging. John Mitchell left as coach virtually overnight. Then we had some internal matters we had to take care of. We also had cash flow challenges. I knew it was going to be a tough task to turn it around. But to be a world-class team you need world-class people.
So, we brought in Jake as a world-class coach, Edgar as a world-class CEO, and we had world-class shareholders. That’s how we started turning it around. I like to tell people that rugby administration is just as much a team sport as the game of rugby is. We are a very close management team and we’re all on the same page, which is to make sure the Vodacom Bulls are successful,” says Strauss.
It speaks volumes for Strauss’ dedication to the Vodacom Bulls cause that of his top three Currie Cup final moments, only one does not involve the Bulls. And that’s because of family.
“I’ll never forget the Currie Cup final in 1976 in Bloemfontein when the Cheetahs beat Western Province because my stepbrother De Wet Ras was the Cheetahs flyhalf that day. Then the 1987 final between the Vodacom Bulls and Transvaal at Ellis Park stands out for me because of Naas Botha’s performance. He scored all the points for the Bulls with four penalties and four drops kicks to see them win 24-18. And then my top one is January this year.”
Strauss’ top three has a nice symmetry to it – one because of family, one because of one man’s rugby genius, and one because of the role he played in making it happen and starting a new era of Bulls history.
For Strauss, 2021 has already delivered possibly his most treasured Currie Cup final memory of the 24 previous titles won by the Vodacom Bulls. When the Bulls beat the Sharks 26-19 at Loftus in January, it signified to Strauss that the turnaround of this union had started to gather real momentum.
“That was a turning point for me because the years before that final win were not good for us,” he says. The last time the Vodacom Bulls had won the Currie Cup before this was in 2009. And in between they only once appeared in the final again and that was in 2016 when they were beaten by the Cheetahs. It was a dire reflection of one of the most historic teams in world rugby.
“There were brave decisions made, from getting the right shareholders on board, and the appointment of Jake as coach which some people criticised me for. But now everybody has bought into us. From players to shareholders to stakeholders. And our fans have done the same.
“When the Vodacom Bulls are playing, I’ll get messages from the various Pretoria clubs who will proudly point out that one of their club players in the Bulls team has just done something. That means this is the people’s team right now, and that’s what we want. Our local rugby community can relate to this Vodacom Bulls team and where it’s going.”
So, this Saturday, Willem Strauss will do what he always does on the day of a final involving the Vodacom Bulls at Loftus Versfeld. “I’ll be watching the game in Edgar’s (Rathbone) office.” And he will do his best not to call both Jake White and Edgar Rathbone on the day.
“You know, people often ask me what have we done that has turned the Vodacom Bulls around like we have. And it’s simple really. What is very rare at a rugby union in South Africa is when all of your structures are aligned. At the Vodacom Bulls, our structures are all perfectly aligned.”
This Saturday, it will be time to see whether the stars are now also aligned in favour of the Vodacom Bulls.
Follow the Carling Currie Cup Final between the Vodacom Bulls and the Cell C Sharks by downloading the Vodacom Bulls App, and enjoy exclusive game day content, competitions and score updates.