The Vodacom Bulls went top of the South African SuperRugby conference as they pipped the Emirates Lions 35-33 in a wild, thrilling evening at Loftus Versfeld on Saturday.
After the scintillating match between the Hurricanes and the Crusaders earlier in the day, the Bulls and Lions showed that here in Africa there is also skill and running rugby.
It was the Bulls who stampeded out of the blocks first, racing to an 18-7 lead and they were comfortably ahead 25-13 at the break. Both sides played with pace and intensity and were not afraid to spread the ball wide, but there was also plenty of uncompromising forward play, defence and fiercely-contested rucks.
Bulls scrumhalf Piet van Zyl scored the first two tries in a dazzling three minutes and it was a pity he had to leave the field injured in the 36th minute because it robbed the Bulls attack of some fluency and also penetration out wide because Francois Hougaard had to move in and play halfback.
Van Zyl’s first try came after a superb counter-attack by the Bulls, who ran from deep and used long passes as flank Arno Botha was eventually stopped in the left corner, the scrumhalf then dummying at the ruck and diving over to dot down.
Three minutes later the Bulls again went wide and it didn’t matter that it was the big men there – locks Victor Matfield and Flip van der Merwe both handled with aplomb to send Botha charging down the left again, before he passed inside to centre Jan Serfontein, who then found Van Zyl, who battled through two tackles to score.
Van Zyl’s opposite number, Faf de Klerk, then lit up Loftus as he provided a brilliant finish to a break by right wing Ruan Combrinck and the conversion by flyhalf Elton Jantjies cut the Bulls’ lead to 12-7.
Pollard kicked two penalties to stretch the gap to 18-7, before Jantjies kicked his second penalty.
But the Bulls ensured they maintained a healthy cushion when JJ Engelbrecht teared off through the middle of the field after Serfontein had popped the ball up in the tackle, the outside centre racing clear and then sprinting around the cover defence for an extraordinary try, converted by Pollard.
Jantjies is staking a strong claim for a World Cup place behind Pollard and Pat Lambie, and he maintained his good goalkicking form with his second penalty of the first half.
This Lions team is a never-say-die outfit and the Bulls’ weakness is the scrum, which they managed to largely avoid in the first half. But with the second half starting with several scrums, the Lions were able to squeeze penalties out of the Bulls, denying them possession for long periods and dominating territory as well.
Referee Marius van der Westhuizen is clearly no scrum expert, but there was no denying the clear change in momentum as Jantjies kicked two penalties to close the gap to 19-25 and then the Lions took the lead for the first time in the 54th minute.
Replacement Courtnall Skosan provided an injection of pace down the left and with impressive flank Jaco Kriel making an incisive run, the Lions swept into the Bulls’ 22, from where their forwards began driving and loosehead prop Jacques van Rooyen was able to go over for an easy try, converted by Jantjies.
Bulls captain Victor Matfield was getting increasingly frustrated with the referee, the Bulls being denied a crucial advantage at one stage, but it was regular captain, Pierre Spies, coming off the bench, who took control of affairs.
The eighthman leapt high to control a chip-kick and then sparked a counter-attack with Hougaard that ended with a ruck penalty inside the Lions’ 22. Spies immediately tapped the ball and powered his way through several tackles, scoring the crucial try that regained the lead for the Bulls with 12 minutes remaining. The Springbok has certainly been playing with tremendous authority in recent weeks.
The momentum also shifted in the scrums, with a massive shove earning the Bulls a penalty in the 76th minute, Pollard slotting a 50m effort to stretch the lead to 35-26.
The smart money would then have been on the Bulls, but the Lions have a well-earned reputation for earning their pay over the full 80 minutes and the home side still have fresh scars from their last-minute loss a month ago at Ellis Park.
And sure enough, the Lions ensured a grandstand finish as they scored a 78th-minute try to narrow the Bulls’ lead to 35-33. Coach Johan Ackermann had called on the services of Ross Cronje off the bench at scrumhalf and he sparked a counter that saw wave-after-wave of Lions attacks. Eventually the Bulls simply ran out of defenders and Kriel, one of the Lions’ consistent stars, had an easy run-in for the try.
But the Bulls were particularly effective in the rucks on Saturday night and they were able to claim a turnover from the kickoff and ended the match with a scrum five metres from the opposition tryline.
Bulls – Tries: Piet van Zyl (2), JJ Engelbrecht, Pierre Spies. Conversions: Handre Pollard (3). Penalties: Pollard (3).
Lions – Tries: Faf de Klerk, Jacques van Rooyen, Jaco Kriel. Conversions: Elton Jantjies (3). Penalties: Jantjies (4).