The three-time champion Bulls struggled to shake off the bottom-of-the-log Lions in the first half, which ended with the scores level 20-20, but lifted their game to score two tries in the first 10 minutes of the second half to set up victory and clinch fifth place in the final standings.
The Bulls thus became the third South African team to qualify for the playoffs, joining the first-placed Stormers and the Sharks, who were edged into sixth position by the result in the country’s capital.
“We had some great moments in the first half, but they really came at us in the scrums and we had some unforced errors which broke our rhythm,” Bulls coach Frans Ludeke told a news conference after the game.
“But we were much more clinical in the second half, we didn’t allow the Lions to get into the game.”
The Lions, with relegation from SuperRugby hanging over their heads, came out roaring for their possible last appearance, dominating the Bulls in the scrums and breaking through tackles.
But they were once again frustrated by the errors that have characterised their campaign, Bulls wing Akona Ndungane taking advantage of flatfooted passing down the backline to intercept and score the opening try in the 16th minute.
Lions flyhalf Elton Jantjies kicked two penalties to keep the visitors in touch at 6-10 down until the half-hour, when their defence failed, two men going for Bulls scrumhalf Francois Hougaard as he darted from the base of a five-metre scrum, allowing wing Bjorn Basson to burst through a huge gap and score.
The Lions were trailing 6-17, but they bounced back superbly as tenacious scrumhalf Michael Bondesio ran straight through Bulls flyhalf Morne Steyn to score from a five-metre scrum and, although the visitors then presented Steyn with an easy penalty after a ruck infringement, an excellent dash down the left touchline by wing Anthony Volmink gave the Lions a lineout feed five metres from the tryline.
The Lions had struggled to secure their own lineout ball throughout the first half, but this time lock Hendrik Roodt took the ball at the front and eighthman and captain Josh Strauss was at the front of the drive over the line.
Jantjies converted the try from the touchline to draw the Lions level and leave the Bulls needing a much-improved second half to keep their campaign alive.
The Lions had an early reprieve in the second half when a Steyn penalty hit the upright, but the Bulls forwards stepped up their intensity and simply overwhelmed the Lions, who were unable to get out of their own territory for most of the second half.
Four minutes after the break, outside centre JJ Engelbrecht went on a superb, mazy run, while hooker Chiliboy Ralepelle punched the ball up well in midfield to set up a ruck, from which Hougaard broke and ran in a try from 25 metres out.
Four minutes later, the Lions were powerless to stop a succession of forward drives by the Bulls, with flank Jacques Potgieter having an easy run-in for the try.
“We need to address the first 10 minutes after half-time, last week it almost cost us the game, this week it did. It’s about concentration in defence. But up till then I was happy, especially with the forwards, the front row went very well,” Lions stand-in coach Johan Ackermann said.
Fullback Zane Kirchner, under pressure from front-rankers Martin Bezuidenhout and JC Janse van Rensburg, made a mess of dotting down for a fifth try in the 60th minute, but the Springbok then won an up-and-under to set up another penalty for Steyn that completed the scoring.
Loosehead prop Dean Greyling, who had been at the forefront of the Bulls’ driving play, was yellow-carded in the 79th minute for dangerous play, but it made no difference to the home side, who had already secured a trip to Christchurch to take on the Canterbury Crusaders, who finished fourth, in their playoff match.
Bulls – Tries: Akona Ndungane, Bjorn Basson, Francois Hougaard, Jacques Potgieter. Conversions: Morne Steyn (4). Penalties: Steyn (3).
Lions – Tries: Michael Bondesio, Josh Strauss. Conversions: Elton Jantjies (2). Penalties: Jantjies (2).