Bulls coach Frans Ludeke accurately summed up his team’s convincing 48-14 win over the Hurricanes at Loftus Versfeld when he said the visitors had been forced to play “back-foot football with no momentum”
Ludeke would also have been delighted with how precisely his team executed the perfect game plan against the Hurricanes – a team that love to run with ball in hand and are lethal from broken play.
But the Bulls, with a resurgent Morne Steyn pulling the strings, thoroughly dominated the territorial battle and a combative defence ensured the Hurricanes had to try more and more outlandish ways of attacking.
Bulls captain Pierre Spies also hit the nail on the head when he praised the tight five for laying the perfect platform. It was their efforts that allowed Steyn to dictate and also gave the backline space to impress on attack.
The suffocating effect of the Bulls’ game plan would have its effects on the naïve Hurricanes as early as the 19th minute as JJ Engelbrecht snaffled an intercept inside enemy territory and stormed over for a try as the Hurricanes tried to go wide far too early in the move. While they would say they were trying to stretch a rock-solid defence around the fringes, they would also lament the fact it was a prop, Ben Franks, who was trying a long, loopy pass out wide.
The Bulls rumbled over a rolling maul for their second try and then Akona Ndungane pounced on another ill-advised long pass out wide for a second intercept try as the home side strolled into a 27-0 half-time lead.
There was still some fight left in the Hurricanes, however, and the visitors showed the best of their attacking skills through two tries by scrumhalf TJ Perenara when they had the patience to wait for the gaps to open at close quarters and the ball was kept nearer to the supporting runners.
But the Bulls were never really threatened and the bonus point was gathered just six minutes into the second half when prop Dean Greyling thundered over.
The loosehead also had much to do with the improved display by the Bulls in the scrums, while the lineouts were once again ultra-efficient.
The pressure on the Hurricanes barely eased off and the Bulls scored two more tries to seal a handsome win and increase the gap between them and the Cheetahs at the top of the South African Conference to two points.
The Bulls have a bye and a guaranteed four points next weekend, but Spies pledged that his team would not be focusing on the log rather than their performance on the field.
“If you look at the log, it is a by-product of what we do and it is satisfying when you look at your position, but it is really not the focus.
“We are going to get the four points from the bye, then we move up and we might lie second [in the overall standings] but there are still plenty of games to play.
“We know it is going to be very marginal in the end and that is why you have to be focused for every game,” Spies said.
The Cheetahs will now need to beat the Hurricanes next weekend to ensure they stay in touch with the Bulls, while both the Sharks and Stormers conspired to fluff their lines overseas and are now eight points behind the three-time champions.
The Stormers, in particular, managed to shoot themselves in the foot as they lost 18-17 to the Blues.
Centre Jean de Villiers scored two brilliant second-half tries to inspire his side, but even though the Springbok and Stormers captain did his best to lead from the front, his team were always playing catch-up rugby after a dismal opening hour.
What was particularly frustrating for De Villiers and Stormers supporters was that their forwards gave a top-class display in the set-pieces to give the visitors a great platform from which to attack.
But a bad display of kicking, both tactically and at poles, poor discipline that led to a rash of penalties and allowed flyhalf Chris Noakes to kick a Blues’ record six penalties, and a lack of vision on attack led to a galling defeat.
A searing break by Joe Pietersen, who otherwise endured a miserable game, midway through the first half really should have led to a try, but first Gio Aplon and then Andries Bekker ignored a team-mate with a clear run-in to the line and the Stormers had to settle for a penalty.
They had already gifted Noakes with two shots at goal, and gave him another three for a 15-3 lead before Juan de Jongh eventually burst clean through midfield after a pop pass from De Villiers, who forced his way over for a 65th-minute try.
De Villiers’ second was down to his own individual brilliance, but with De Jongh surprisingly substituted in the closing minutes, the Stormers’ rather laboured efforts to snatch victory at the death came to nought. In the end they shovelled the ball to poor Elton Jantjies to try an after-the-hooter drop goal, but the replacement flyhalf’s effort barely got off the ground with several Blues defenders bearing down on him.
While the Stormers are way down in 10th place on the log with 29 points, they at least have a game in hand on the Sharks, who have the same number of points but are battling to get out of a four-game losing slump.
Weighed down by an awful injury list, they’re not making life any easier for themselves though by lacking focus.
They led 15-7 at half-time against the Highlanders in Dunedin, but an awful third quarter, when they spent more time arguing with referee Steve Walsh (how low his star has fallen) than concentrating on important matters such as defence, saw the home team claim a 25-15 lead by the hour mark.
Although centre Meyer Bosman scored his second try, the Sharks had left themselves with too much to do against a Highlanders team that was reinvigorated by the bye and desperate to shake off the burden of being the only winless team in SuperRugby this season.
The Southern Kings have surprised many in notching two wins and a draw thus far, but on Saturday they sunk without a trace, as quickly as someone with cement boots with an anchor attached in Algoa Bay, as the Waratahs hammered them 72-10.
A flatfooted, lethargic defensive effort – perhaps understandably after nine successive matches for a fatigued team with little depth – ensured that the Waratahs had plenty of space to work a whole heap of attacking magic with all the front-foot ball their mighty, all-Wallaby pack was giving them.
Exciting fullback Israel Folau scored one try, but that did not come close to reflecting the influence he had on the game. It was the record-breaking former rugby league star’s stepping, vision and pace off the mark that cut the Kings to shreds and he set up many of the Waratahs’ 11 tries. Wings Cam Crawford (3) and the impressive Peter Betham (2) shared five of those.