The Bulls used their powerful, cohesive pack of forwards to out-muscle the Stormers and beat them 28-12 in their Vodacom SuperRugby match at Loftus Versfeld on Saturday night, to maintain their interest in finishing in the top six and making the playoffs.
The Bulls had to fight their way back from a 12-0 deficit inside the first quarter, the Stormers using clinical counter-attacking play to punish the home side’s sloppy work at the breakdown, but were in firm control once they eliminated the mistakes from their game.
A dominant scrum allowed a tremendous platform for the Bulls to set up their favourite driving plays, and the lineout was as solid as ever, and the Stormers were left to live on scraps of quality possession, while also generally trying to play from their own territory thanks to the excellence of the Bulls’ kicking game.
To put it frankly, the Stormers had their backsides handed to them and, no matter how positive the attacking intent, you can’t do much with crap ball.
The demolition job was made even more dramatic by the spectacular change in fortunes after the first quarter. The Bulls were scrappy in the first 10 minutes and the Stormers looked in control.
Schalk Burger rolled back the years to play a typically destructive role in the first quarter, but he also showed his skill and nous in setting up the opening try. Fellow flank Nizaam Carr had just made his second breakdown steal in the first 10 minutes, the Stormers quickly shipping the ball wide, and Burger cut inside before offloading beautifully to Cheslin Kolbe on the left wing. That injected the pace required and Kolbe then found centre Juan de Jongh, who sent flyhalf Kurt Coleman racing clear for a thrilling opening try.
The second try was also a direct result of the Bulls not protecting possession well enough in the ruck, with hooker Scarra Ntubeni pouncing on an unattended ball. Carr was once again involved before the ball was sent wide and De Jongh provided a strong finish to put the Stormers 12-0 ahead in the 19th minute.
But fortunately for the Bulls, these breakdown errors were not ongoing. They tidied up their act at that crucial phase and the steady stream of possession was used to batter the abrasive Stormers defence into submission. Eighthman Grant Hattingh, flank Jacques du Plessis, lock Paul Willemse and even Jono Ross carried the ball strongly and centres Jan Serfontein and JJ Engelbrecht were also willing battering rams.
While the Stormers had produced some inspired counter-attacking play off turnovers for their points, the Bulls were clinical in their own methodical way – most times they were in the opposition 22, they came away with points.
The Bulls opened their scorecard in the 23rd minute, the incisive running of Serfontein and Engelbrecht causing the Stormers to stray offsides and flyhalf Handre Pollard, who certainly had his eye in when it came to shooting at goal, slotting the first of his five penalties.
The Bulls were back in Stormers’ territory three minutes later and Pollard, who has donned the number 10 jersey with aplomb since being elevated to the starting line-up, slotted a slickly-taken drop goal.
The home side secured front-foot ball from the scrum with ease and, in the 29th minute, they really shoved the Stormers backwards to earn a penalty, Pollard converting well from the centre-spot.
The Bulls were carrying the ball with more and more confidence by this stage and, after the flood of turnovers in the opening exchanges, the momentum had definitely shifted at the breakdown (consistently getting over the gain-line will do that) and a frustrated Burger was in referee Craig Joubert’s ear more and more.
“In the first 20 minutes, we were able to carry the ball and be influential on attack, but the tide turned and then it became difficult for us. I got a bit worked up and had a few words with Craig, but I tried to calm down and I apologised to him as we went off at half-time,” Burger admitted after the game.
It was a ruck penalty against eighthman Duane Vermeulen for not supporting his own body weight that allowed Pollard to level the scores at 12-12 on the stroke of halftime and the Bulls, having shown great character in clawing their way back to level terms, will remember the second half with much fondness as they clinically shut the Stormers out of the game.
The Stormers, jailed in their own half by the pinpoint kicking of Pollard, scrumhalf Francois Hougaard and fullback Jurgen Visser, were brave and positive, but the generally poor quality of their possession and the physicality of the Bulls meant they were up against a brick wall.
The Bulls made the ideal start to the second half when Serfontein’s lovely dart from the kick-off forced the Stormers to come in from the side of the ruck, and Pollard kicked the penalty to give the home side the lead for the first time, in the 42nd minute.
Pollard stretched the lead to 18-12 in the 55th minute when Vermeulen and Ruan Botha combined to stop a rampaging Dean Greyling, celebrating his 50th SuperRugby game, but the young lock then did not roll away after the tackle.
The Stormers enjoyed a better period of possession thereafter and spent time in the Bulls half. But, in the 66th minute, substitute flank Siya Kolisi, on for Burger, tried to burst on to a flat pass but knocked on. The ball bounced into the hands of another replacement loose forward, Jacques Engelbrecht, and he quickly fed the ball to the backline.
The resulting try not only clinched the victory but came straight from the Stormers’ own play-book.
Hougaard read the situation brilliantly, putting the grubber through behind the Stormers defence for wing Akona Ndungane to chase. The veteran wing showed great pace as he got there first, hacking the ball further forward and then winning the race to the dot-down as it crossed the try-line.
With Pollard’s conversion, the Bulls’ lead was 25-12 and the win was secure, Stormers coach Allister Coetzee saying afterwards that it was the pivotal moment in the game.
Replacement flyhalf Jacques-Louis Potgieter added a 71st-minute penalty from the halfway line as the Stormers were sentenced to their eighth defeat in 11 matches – Burger summing up their showing when he said: “We brought quite a young and inexperienced team here and we really put the Bulls under pressure at the start. It was a big effort, but the accuracy wasn’t that good.”
Coach Coetzee is right to point out the huge injury problems that the Stormers have, and bringing two very inexperienced locks – 22-year-old Ruan Botha and 20-year-old debutant Jean Kleyn – to Loftus Versfeld meant their engine room was always going to be under pressure. To make matters worse for the visitors, experienced loosehead prop Brok Harris had to be replaced for much of the match and Springbok tourist Ntubeni went off after 55 minutes. Their replacements were rookies Alistair Vermaak, on debut, and Stephan Coetzee.
The Bulls have now climbed to eighth on the log, just two points from the playoff positions, and captain Victor Matfield warned that the same confidence that saw them win the South African Conference last year with nine successive wins is returning.
“The belief is starting to grow and I’m very happy with tonight’s performance, it felt like the Bulls of old. We just squeezed them, gave them nothing and our scrum killed them.
“We kicked long and then got our line up, we were able to get the ball in the right areas and then fight for inches. It was a great effort to come from behind and then we just built our lead. I’m very confident of the future when I look at our young players,” Matfield said.