It was far from the displays of arrogant power the Bulls have historically produced at Loftus Versfeld, but at least they managed to get the win as they scraped through 20-14 against the Cheetahs in their SuperRugby match in Pretoria on Saturday night.
The Bulls were once again their own worst enemies with numerous unforced basic errors, and they left it late to keep their unbeaten record at home intact for this season as Jesse Kriel’s 74th-minute try gave them the lead for the first time and ended up being the last score of the game.
The Cheetahs had led 11-3 at halftime and were able to use their scrum as a tremendous platform, while also disrupting the Bulls’ lineout maul and causing problems with the driving maul. The visitors were also more slick on attack and credit must go to the Bulls defence for restricting them to just one try, and that from a rolling maul.
The Cheetahs scrum made themselves known in the first set-piece of the match, shoving the Bulls towards the touchline and allowing space for a backline move which saw right wing William Small-Smith looping around and then stabbing a clever grubber through which forced the Bulls to concede a five-metre lineout.
The Bulls were penalised for sacking the driving maul and the Cheetahs kicked to touch again, fiery loose forward Paul Schoeman rumbling over for the opening try from the second drive.
The Bulls also did themselves no favours through a lack of presence at the breakdowns, and a nice little dart by outside centre Francois Venter earned the Cheetahs a ruck penalty, which flyhalf Niel Marais slotted to put them 8-0 ahead in the 10th minute.
The Bulls are capable of playing some impressive rugby when they can hang on to the ball without someone dropping a straightforward pass, and 19 phases of sustained pressure eventually led to a penalty, allowing flyhalf Tian Schoeman to put them on the board with a penalty in the 26th minute.
But the scrums are always an area of concern for the Bulls and they soon went down in a heap once again, allowing Marais to extend the Cheetahs’ lead back to 11-3 with another penalty.
That was the halftime score and it had been a disappointing first 40 minutes, with the sheer number of errors backing up those who feel South African rugby players are well behind when it comes to skills.
At least the Free Staters can still scrum, with loosehead prop Charles Marais thoroughly dictating affairs against Bulls tighthead Jacobie Adriaanse, the steady stream of penalties from that set-piece messing up the flow of the game for the home side.
But Adriaanse, together with openside flank Nick de Jager, who had struggled to make any impact at the breakdowns, then sponsored replacement flank Jacques Potgieter for the second try with fine runs and nifty offloads.
Although the Bulls undoubtedly lifted their game in the second half, they still made a lot of unforced errors in the second half and they wasted a fine counter-ruck by replacement prop Lizo Gqoboka when scrumhalf Piet van Zyl fumbled the ball, was tackled and then conceded a penalty at the ruck, Niel Marais stretching the Cheetahs’ lead to 14-10 after the home side had closed to 10-11.
Bulls flyhalf Tian Schoeman brought the gap back to just one point, however, with an excellent long-range penalty punishing the Cheetahs for a high tackle after the home side had run from their own half.
The Bulls certainly showed more attacking spark in the final quarter and the match-winning try also came from a long way out.
Right wing Travis Ismaiel effected a vital turnover inside his own half and left wing Jamba Ulengo then went through the gap, centre Burger Odendaal then feeding outside centre Jesse Kriel out wide, the Springbok cutting back inside to evade two cover-tacklers and score the second, crucial try.
Tian Schoeman converted for a 20-14 lead, but the Bulls defence still had to hold out at the end, Ismaiel and fullback Warrick Gelant combining to tackle left wing Raymond Rhule out on the corner flag in the last play of the game.
It was typical of the spirited defence the Bulls showed all night and the determination of the team not to lose, despite how badly they were playing, must please coach Nollis Marais.
But the Bulls must still do more when they have the ball and their skills have to be better if they are to be a force in SuperRugby. They have the pace and power out wide, but too often they are running from deep, which stifles their attacking efforts.
The Bulls will be enjoying a bye next week, but then they host the Crusaders and Highlanders on successive weekends and they will be far more ruthless in punishing the many errors they are still making.
Bulls: Tries – Jacques Potgieter, Jesse Kriel. Conversions – Tian Schoeman (2). Penalties – Schoeman (2).
Cheetahs: Try – Paul Schoeman. Penalties – Niel Marais (3).