The Bulls produced a display of precision and power to beat the Cheetahs 30-25 in Bloemfontein and put themselves on the brink of claiming the Vodacom SuperRugby South African Conference title and a home playoff match.
The Bulls, thanks to their combative forwards, who dominated the gain line and the lineouts, were in control for most of the crunch encounter and led 30-13 going into the last 10 minutes.
Tries by flyhalf Riaan Smit, after magical hands by inside centre Robert Ebersohn, and prop Trevor Nyakane then claimed a bonus point for the Cheetahs and kept them above the Crusaders in fifth place on the overall standings.
But for the other 70 minutes, they seldom threatened the Bulls line. The Cheetahs seemed to be drowning in a sea of blue defenders, every collision seemingly another metre gained by the Bulls, and the Thick Blue Line was no laughing matter for an increasingly desperate home side.
The one area where the Cheetahs did dominate, however, was in the scrums and Coenie Oosthuizen, Adriaan Strauss, Lourens Adriaanse and Trevor Nyakane were all rewarded with Springbok call-ups shortly after the game.
It’s clearly an area of concern for the Bulls as it will allow whoever they face in the playoffs to target a specific area of weakness, and coach Frans Ludeke hauled loosehead prop Dean Greyling off the field as early as the 44th minute.
But while Greyling and Werner Kruger are struggling in the scrums, it doesn’t seem to be costing the Bulls games … yet. And besides, Greyling and Kruger are at the forefront of the massive hits the Bulls tight forwards put in on the gain line and one can understand Ludeke’s reluctance to jettison them completely.
Hooker Chiliboy Ralepelle is also not renowned for his scrummaging, but his open play is outstanding and it was his charge through the defence that allowed the Bulls to make the breakthrough in the eighth minute, as Kruger barged over the tryline.
The only time the Bulls defence looked as if it might be breached was when the Cheetahs’ roaming wing Willie le Roux had the ball in hand. He scored from a typical piece of individual brilliance in the 13th minute when, with nothing much on, he chipped over the defence and gathered to score under the poles.
But the next five minutes were dominated by the Bulls’ direct runners, so strong with ball in hand (lock Flip van der Merwe in particular), and the inevitable ruck penalty saw Morné Steyn kick for the corner, the rolling maul put in place and flank Deon Stegmann scoring.
The Cheetahs were still in touch at 10-17 down at half-time, but with the hugely talented Jan Serfontein in white-hot form at inside centre, the shell-shocked home side soon found themselves 30-13 down after two penalties by Steyn and a try by Jano Vermaak that had its roots in the 20-year-old crashing through the home line. There was also great interplay between replacement forwards Grant Hattingh and Dewald Potgieter, who were both able to come on and make a major impact, with the latter throwing a precision pass for the scrumhalf to complete the try.
The Stormers emerged victorious (19-11) from their arm-wrestle with the Southern Kings at a sodden Newlands, fullback Joe Pietersen kicking 14 points in blustery conditions and ensuring the visitors were kept in their own half for much of the game.
Flank Deon Fourie also scored a try, but the Stormers were victorious because they won the kicking battle, their set-pieces were better and they shaded the collisions.
The Kings were determined and skilful, and can point to two gross misfortunes having a material impact on the outcome.
Flyhalf Demetri Catrakilis, part of the Springbok training camp and very close to selection for the final squad according to Heyneke Meyer, had a recurrence of his calf injury and pulled out just before the game and left the Kings without a major weapon for the kicking and territorial battle.
And Fourie’s try came from a rolling maul after the Stormers had been given a lineout throw five metres from the line when replacement scrumhalf Dewaldt Duvenhage’s chip deflected off a Kings defender and rolled into the corner.
The Kings had the Stormers under pressure in the closing minutes, scoring through flank Wimpie van der Walt after a lineout drive, but flyhalf George Whitehead missed the crucial conversion and the visitors had the chance to kick a penalty for the losing bonus point but went for the try instead and lost the ball.
Jean de Villiers had another inspirational game for the Stormers at outside centre, although clearly no one had much fun in the awful conditions.
The Kings can now concentrate all their resources on the almost-inevitable promotion/relegation matches they will have to play against the Lions at the end of July.
And it looks like they will need them after the Lions demolished Samoa 74-14 at Ellis Park.
While one can never read too much into such a one-sided game, the fact that the Samoans were all at sea in the set-pieces and defending out wide suggests the Lions have weapons that can really hurt the Kings.
Super Rugby Logs – after Round 16:
South African Conference