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Rugby | SuperSport Rugby Challenge

Bulldogs no longer playing on fumes

The Border Bulldogs’ win against the Eastern Province Elephants last weekend – their first in this year’s SuperSport Rugby Challenge – was the first indication that they were no longer a team operating on fumes.

Their much-publicised near-liquidation the week the tournament began was followed by results that betrayed the fact that the players and coaches had been in crisis talks (they lost their first three games in the South Pool), rather than on the pitch preparing.

Hooker Mihlali Mpafi said the 22-17 win against EP couldn’t have come at a better time: “That was a major boost for us, especially because they were one of the teams we targeted to beat to try and get some confidence going, we’d also targeted the Eagles as well but that didn’t work out.

“Due to the impediments of our circumstances and the fact that there was no continuity in our training, we wanted to use the first round of the competition as the preparation we didn’t have. So that win was like the beginning of our tournament – imagine if we hadn’t won one game in the first round of the group stages...”

Mpafi, who is from Mdantsane Township, outside East London, explained just how difficult living with not knowing if they would be paid or not had been on the players in the period leading up to the liquidation.

“It was very frustrating because as players we have to market ourselves,” he explained. “The only way you can do that is by playing, and if you can’t train you can’t play. There were financial commitments that needed to be taken care of – some of the guys were newly married, about to lose their cars, sole breadwinners at home, studying – and we could do none of it because of the money.

“Living with that anxiety was really draining, emotionally.”

Mpafi said the greatest impact of facing liquidation had been their conditioning and mentality: “Fitness was our main problem because at the end of the day rugby is a game of two halves. You can’t play a good half and burn yourself out, and when the other team comes back at you with something in the tank you’re playing on fumes.

“A lot of the players were frustrated about finances and even when we met as a team it was for meetings, which was a constant reminder that we were in trouble. When we were thrown into the deep end of playing we had to work hard on getting our minds and mentality right.”

The third year IT student, who was captain of the Hudson Park High School first XV and had a two-year playing stint at the Free State Cheetahs (his contemporaries were Johan Goosen, Marcel van der Merwe and Trevor Nyakane), said they were still nervous about the finances.

“There is still a shortfall, money wise, and the union says there may be money from the Tourism Department. But they have back paid everything they owe us, paid us for the present and in advance while they try to secure a sponsor.

“But also having seen what can happen in a matter of days we still have that anxiety lingering in the back of our minds.”

For all the peripheral issues, Mpafi said the players were enjoying their new coach, former Bulls, Stormers and Kings fullback Tiger Mangweni: “He’s one of the clearest and most straight forward coaches I’ve worked with, but he also doesn’t restrict what you can and cannot do.

“He’s good at telling you what you need to do to get better and keeps reinforcing the positives in your game. He also shows you clips of you when you played well and not only asks what you were doing to play well but also why you can’t do it again.”


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