The Vodacom Bulls overwhelmed the Sunwolves 50-3 in their SuperRugby match at Loftus Versfeld on Saturday, running in seven tries without reply, but it was more because of their aggressive defence than any scintillating attacking play that the bonus-point win was recorded.
The Sunwolves had enough of the ball, especially in the second half, to have troubled the Bulls, but the home side, probably playing their last match at Loftus Versfeld this season, were fired up in defence and dominated the gain-line, as well as scrambling well and generally looking eager to make an impression.
The attacking work of the Bulls was by no means bad, but at times there was a lack of fluency and a few mistakes as well.
But it was obviously a pleasing evening for the Bulls as they kept the pressure on the Sharks for the last South African qualifying place, gaining a two-point lead over the KwaZulu-Natalians ahead of their crunch game against the Cheetahs in Durban.
It took the Bulls 12 minutes to break down the defence of the Sunwolves, who were fortunate not to be reduced to 14 men early on when outside centre Derek Carpenter received the benefit of the doubt for a trip and was not yellow-carded.
The Bulls’ efforts to bash away at close quarters were nullified by the Sunwolves spoiling their breakdown ball and tackling bravely, and the opening try eventually came when the Bulls were able to exploit the wide open spaces from deeper out. The Sunwolves cleared their lines with a kick, but Jesse Kriel, whose play at fullback was a breath of fresh air compared to his fettered efforts in midfield, took a quick lineout and wing Jamba Ulengo produced a great run from 58 metres out, beating several defenders and then popping the ball up in the tackle to flank Lappies Labuschagne, who was up in support and able to go over for the try.
Unlike the Bulls, the Sunwolves were able to get points from their first visit to the 22, as flyhalf Yu Tamura kicked a penalty after scrumhalf Piet van Zyl spent too long on the wrong side of a ruck.
Bulls flyhalf Francois Brummer, whose kicking game was sharp, added an 18th-minute penalty to his earlier conversion and would eventually finish with a five-from-six record with three more conversions.
The Bulls crossed the tryline again in the 21st minute as Van Zyl detected the space and launched a great counter-attack. Labuschagne was once again up in support and he sent centre Dries Swanepoel over for the try.
Labuschagne was all over the field, linking, tackling and winning turnovers, which suggests his move to Japan after Super Rugby is going to be a major blow for the Bulls. In the 27th minute, he was stopped just short of the line, but fellow flank Jannes Kirsten was on hand to pick up the ball and drive over the line (24-3).
It was one-way traffic in the first half and the Bulls grabbed a fourth try before the break as the Sunwolves tried to run their way out of the 22 – spurning the big boot of fullback Riaan Viljoen – and the ball went to ground in the backline. Brummer pounced, kicked through and had an easy path to dotting down, his conversion making the halftime score 31-3.
The scent of a real thrashing was in the air early in the second half as Van Zyl went on another jet-propelled dash through the defence, captain Adriaan Strauss finishing the move with a bullocking run.
The Sunwolves were 36-3 down, but they did not run out of gas, to their credit. Surviving on scraps up till then, they certainly stretched the Bulls defence in the second half and coach Nollis Marais will be fuming over the penalty count.
But the Bulls are the team with the best tackling success rate in the competition and they kept the Sunwolves out, before adding the finishing touches to their win with two late tries, both by wing Travis Ismaiel.
The Bulls are a skilful side when they get it right and there were some lovely hands involved in the first try, especially a brilliant, long, flat pass out wide from centre Burger Odendaal to Ismaiel.
The Sunwolves then went back on attack but, to their immense disappointment, a grubber through was tidied up by replacement fullback SP Marais, who then broke through and released Ismaiel on a 55-metre open run-in to the line.
The outstanding work-rate of Labuschagne meant he fully deserved the man of the match award, but the other star players were the eighthman Renaldo Bothma, who was at the forefront of smashing the Sunwolves back, and Van Zyl, who sparked much of the attacking play.
Pierre Schoeman’s first start in the number one jersey was also impressive, showing he can ably stand in during the absence of Trevor Nyakane and Lizo Gqoboka through injury, while the midfield pairing of Swanepoel and Odendaal also rose to the occasion.
Vodacom Bulls – Tries: Lappies Labuschagne, Dries Swanepoel, Jannes Kirsten, Francois Brummer, Adriaan Strauss, Travis Ismaiel (2). Conversions: Brummer (4), Tian Schoeman (2). Penalty: Brummer.
Sunwolves – Penalty: Yu Tamura.