South African Jaco Peyper issued white cards for further consideration of television evidence by the citing commissioner, after Bulls hooker Chiliboy Ralepelle and eighthman and captain Pierre Spies approached the referee and accused the Crusaders of eye-gouging them in the ruck in the 40th and 41st minutes respectively.
The Bulls won penalties for other ruck offences at the same time, with flyhalf Morne Steyn kicking both to bring the home side to within a point of the Crusaders (13-12).
The Crusaders had dominated the early stages of the match as they raced into a 10-0 lead in the first 13 minutes.
A crunching tackle by centre Ryan Crotty set up a penalty for the Crusaders, who kicked the ball to touch, won the lineout and then had captain and eighthman Kieran Read crashing through on a terrific angle to score the opening try, which was converted by flyhalf Dan Carter.
Carter then added a penalty after Crotty’s wonderful offload to fullback Israel Dagg, keeping the centre company on his shoulder, had taken the Crusaders back into Bulls’ territory.
Steyn kicked penalties in the 17th and 23rd minutes to cut the deficit to 10-6. Carter replied with a drop goal and missed a 28th-minute penalty, before Ralepelle stole the ball at a ruck and earned the Springbok flyhalf his third successful shot at goal, and then made the first startling allegation of eye-gouging.
Spies added to the drama straight after the kickoff when he complained of the same offence, with Steyn kicking a penalty for hands in the ruck to close the gap to 13-12.
The Bulls then surged into the lead in the 44th minute when, after a period of driving play by the forwards, flank CJ Stander burst clear and offloaded to loosehead prop Dean Greyling, who threw an outrageous dummy before charging to the tryline. Steyn converted to give the three-time champions a 19-13 lead.
Replacement centre Tom Taylor and Steyn exchanged penalties before the Bulls opened up a 32-16 lead with nine minutes remaining thanks to another penalty by Steyn and a try by centre Wynand Olivier, who was able to dot down the bouncing ball in the in-goal area after Dagg had failed to clear a Steyn chip-through, trying to kick the ball instead of falling on it.
The desperate Crusaders held sway in the last seven minutes as wing Sean Maitland’s weaving run pulled apart the Bulls’ defence and his fellow wing Zac Guildford showed good hands to take the try-scoring pass. Carter’s conversion closed the gap to 23-32.
Steyn then missed a penalty and Taylor had a try disallowed due to obstruction by Carter, but it had little influence as replacement fullback Tom Marshall burst through to score for the Crusaders immediately afterwards.
Carter converted but was left to rue his 64th-minute penalty miss from the middle of the field.
The Bulls defended stoutly in the closing moments to hold off the seven-time champions and record their fourth victory in six games, which moves them to fourth on the overall standings, four points behind fellow-South African Conference members and early pace-setters, the Stormers.
The Crusaders’ losing bonus point takes them to 19 points, seventh overall and seven points behind New Zealand Conference leaders, the Waikato Chiefs, who are second overall.
Bulls – Tries: Dean Greyling, Wynand Olivier. Conversions: Morne Steyn (2). Penalties: Steyn (6).
Crusaders – Tries: Kieran Read, Zac Guildford, Tom Marshall. Conversions: Dan Carter (3). Penalties: Carter, Tom Taylor. Drop goal: Carter.