The great provincial rivalry between the north and south was firmly in evidence as the Vodacom Bulls edged out the DHL Stormers 17-13 in their Vodacom SuperRugby match at Loftus Versfeld on Saturday.
In a hard-fought encounter that was an epic for its sheer brutality on the gain-line, it was the Bulls who showed the most steel and this win – against a side that has had the wood over them for the last few years – will no doubt be a massive boost in the growth of the young team coach Nollis Marais is building.
The Bulls had control of the scrums and had the Stormers under constant pressure in the lineouts so, even though the visitors had much more possession, it was the Bulls who were in charge, especially since they refused to yield an inch on the gain-line.
The Stormers looked after the ball better from the opening whistle and they were able to put the first points on the board through a Jean-Luc du Plessis penalty in the second minute.
But the Bulls exerted their dominance in the scrums from the outset and loosehead Oli Kebble went down in the first scrum, giving Francois Brummer the chance to level the scores for the Bulls.
The power-sharing continued for the rest of the first half, as the Stormers built the phases and pressure and the Bulls struggled to exit from their 22, allowing Du Plessis to slot another penalty, while missing another three minutes before halftime.
The Stormers were conceding penalties at the scrum though and losing lineout ball, while Lappies Labuschagne was superb at the breakdown, earning Brummer another penalty, while the Bulls flyhalf also missed an attempt on the half-hour.
The Bulls broke the 6-6 deadlock seven minutes after halftime with an impressive try by scrumhalf Piet van Zyl.
As much as Stormers fullback Cheslin Kolbe deserves respect for his brilliant attacking skills and courage in defence, he is vulnerable when he is isolated and caught with the ball, as happened when the Bulls launched an up-and-under from a free kick straight on to him. Wing Travis Ismaiel chased superbly and monstered Kolbe in the tackle, with eighthman Arno Botha in support to strip the ball off the fullback. Hooker Adriaan Strauss was then on hand to spread the turnover ball wide, centre Jan Serfontein putting in a chip over the scrambling defence that was gathered by fullback SP Marais, who sent Van Zyl racing over for the opening try.
Brummer missed the easy conversion – which in such a tight tiff between arch-rivals could have been crucial – but the Stormers’ breakdown woes did allow the flyhalf to kick a penalty five minutes later to put the Bulls 14-6 ahead.
Du Plessis pulled a penalty wide after the Stormers caused problems with a driving maul, but the visitors came strongly back into the contest with 12 minutes remaining with a try by centre Damian de Allende.
A little shoulder charge by prop Marcel van der Merwe on Schalk Burger – who was never far from the action – led to the penalty that gave the Stormers territory, and they bashed away on the Bulls line until the otherwise superb defence gave De Allende just enough leeway to storm over.
Du Plessis’ conversion made it a one-point game (13-14), but this time there would be no late try from the Stormers to break Bulls’ hearts.
The Bulls went back to the driving maul, made considerable progress, and Tian Schoeman, brought on for Brummer just a few minutes earlier, sent the perfect drop goal flying between the posts.
This meant the Bulls were out of penalty range (17-13) but they dominated the last five minutes in any case. Referee Ben O’Keeffe, who had had a good game until then, then took centre stage as he penalised the dominant Bulls scrum five metres from the Stormers line, missed the duffed quick-tap but then levelled matters by blowing the Stormers up for foot-up at the next scrum.
This win not only breaks a four-match losing streak against the Stormers, but it could also be a watershed moment for a young side that should now have enormous belief.
Vodacom Bulls – Try: Piet van Zyl. Penalties: Francois Brummer (3). Drop goal: Tian Schoeman.
DHL Stormers – Try: Damian de Allende. Conversion: Jean-Luc du Plessis. Penalties: Du Plessis (2).