As it often is with the Bulls, it was a long and drawn-out process, but they managed to beat the Cheetahs 26-21 in their Vodacom SuperRugby match at Loftus Versfeld on Saturday night and in so doing kept their slim playoff hopes alive.
The Cheetahs, meanwhile, who are back at the bottom of the SuperRugby log, will wonder how they managed to lose a game after leading 18-9 at halftime and looking much the better side.
Their supporters will be wondering why the exciting Cheetahs backline, which stretched the Bulls dangerously in the first half, was hardly used in the second half. Although the visitors will be livid that they were penalised for holding on to the ball in the ruck late in the game when Jan Serfontein was clearly not supporting his own body weight, they had only themselves to blame because they made it easy for the Bulls defence by simply bashing the ball up for phase after phase. Their backline looked on, standing deep and way out of the action.
“It was frustrating, but credit to the Bulls because they manage to mould you into their game plan of kicking and driving,” Cheetahs captain Adriaan Strauss, celebrating his 100th SuperRugby match, admitted afterwards.
While the Bulls managed to con referee Marius van der Westhuizen with that Serfontein breakdown steal, they were generally more accurate at the ruck, especially in the second half, helped by the fact that their big ball-carriers were mostly getting over the advantage line.
“We clawed our way back and we managed to squeeze them in the second half. The maul was working well and momentum and quick ball meant we had a lot of attacking plays and every time we got penalties we kept the pressure on them.
“It was a team effort at the breakdowns, everyone was really switched on to ensure we secured the ball. We had to work hard and it was like slow poison in the right areas,” Bulls coach Frans Ludeke confirmed.
The Cheetahs, going backwards, struggled to stamp their mark on the breakdown and the scrums were also an area of concern for them, a tendency to push inwards not winning the favour of the referee.
Loosehead prop Caylib Oosthuizen was penalised for hinging to allow Bulls flyhalf Handre Pollard to open the scoring with a 52-metre penalty, but Cheetahs loose forwards Boom Prinsloo and Jean Cook then combined well to snuff out a promising break by William Small-Smith and earn an Elgar Watts penalty to level the scores in the ninth minute.
Handre Pollard, who was singled out for praise by Ludeke for the way he bounced back, then went through an awful five minutes to give the Cheetahs a 13-3 lead.
Pollard, so used to calling the shots at flyhalf against minors, flew a long flat pass in the face of the defence as the Bulls probed away in the Cheetahs 22, and centre Johann Sadie read it perfectly, intercepting and running 75 metres to score under the poles.
Watts added the extra two points and, in the 23rd minute, referee Van der Westhuizen seemed a tad pedantic when he yellow-carded Pollard for not retreating the full 10 metres when Cheetahs scrumhalf Sarel Pretorius took a tap-penalty. Watts again added the three points.
A crowd of 17 606 welcoming the Bulls back from their winless overseas tour were no doubt contemplating stronger drink at this point, but the Bulls, to their credit, would not be distracted from their game plan.
Strong runs by eighthman Grant Hattingh and prop Dean Greyling earned a penalty, kicked by fullback Jurgen Visser, as Strauss went off his feet at the ruck, and the Bulls were unfortunate to be denied a try by the bullocking tighthead Marcel van der Merwe five minutes from the break when the TMO harshly ruled that captain Victor Matfield, standing to the side of the ruck, had been obstructing an offsides Heinrich Brussow.
Brussow erred again two minutes later, lying all over the ball at a ruck, and Pollard, back on the field, slotted the penalty to bring the Bulls back to 9-13.
But the half belonged to the Cheetahs, who always seemed the more likely team to score, thanks to the spark of the backline and they scored what seemed to be the crucial try in the final minute of the first half.
Sadie took the gap with the sort of hard, straight running he seldom produced while at the Bulls, and the powerful Benjamin was on his shoulder for the offload, making further ground before flinging a long pass out to Raymond Rhule on the right wing.
The Ghanaian-born flyer finished clinically, beating two cover defenders, and the Cheetahs went into the break as the team in charge, leading 18-9.
“At half-time I thought we had done reasonably well. But in the second half, the Bulls maul was really effective, they would force penalties and then make us defend for the next four or five minutes.
“We let it slip in the second half, our discipline was bad, we gave away too many penalties at their drives and we missed opportunities of our own,” Cheetahs coach Naka Drotske lamented.
It was Pollard who sparked the comeback – the boy’s clearly got something – with a lovely chip-and-gather that put the Bulls hard on attack in the Cheetahs 22, with lock Paul Willemse, another of the young brigade that is exciting Loftus Versfeld, muscling over for a try from a ruck.
Pollard converted but then Jono Ross took too long to roll away in the tackle and Johan Goosen, back in SuperRugby after what feels like an age on the sidelines, kicked the penalty to stretch the Cheetahs’ lead to 21-16.
The power ball-carrying of the Bulls forwards would be the deciding factor, however, as the under-pressure Callie Visagie did well to storm over from 10 metres out after the home side had kicked a penalty to touch but elected against the rolling maul. The penalty came after Brussow had once again infringed at the ruck.
Pollard converted to give the Bulls the lead (23-21) for the first time since the sixth minute and, after Goosen had missed an angled penalty attempt in the 60th minute, the sniping skills of centre Serfontein saw the Cheetahs trapped offsides and the boot of Jacques-Louis Potgieter provided the final points of the match.
“It’s taken a lot of the pressure off, we had that sick feeling in the stomach that we really wanted to win,” Matfield said afterwards. “Things just seem to happen easier here at Loftus, I don’t know why.”