The Bulls will earn deserved credit for their improvement, but the end result was still the same as they went down 28-12 to the Chiefs in a bonus point defeat in their SuperRugby match in Hamilton on Saturday.
A superb first-half display by the Bulls in which intensity crackled through everything they did – in attack they were direct and handled superbly, while their defence was physical and uncompromising – saw them claim a deserved 9-3 lead at the break.
But the Chiefs showed their class as they stayed composed and were able to pull away from the 50-minute mark, scoring three tries in an ultimately impressive victory.
The Chiefs had a terrible time in the first half trying to contain superb Bulls inside centre Burger Odendaal, who led the visitors’ resurgence with some powerful ball-carries and excellent midfield defence. It led to the home side having missed an awful 15 tackles by halftime.
But the Bulls just lacked the attacking incisiveness to convert their gains into points on the scoreboard.
When centre Jan Serfontein went inside instead of pinning his ears back on the outside following some storming runs by Odendaal in the fourth minute, it was one of many moments when the Bulls were left wondering what might have been.
The Chiefs had been caught offsides in the build-up, however, and flyhalf Handre Pollard was at least able to kick a penalty for an early 3-0 lead.
More superb carries and direct running by the Bulls, and a determined rumble forward by prop Trevor Nyakane, led to another Pollard penalty in the 10th minute, but the Chiefs dominated the first scrum four minutes later, earning a penalty kicked by flyhalf Aaron Cruden (3-6).
But the Bulls had the final say in the first half as the Chiefs tried to run the ball out of their own 22 after conceding a free kick, but were turned over, allowing the Bulls to string several phases together and earn another Pollard penalty for not releasing at the ruck.
But the tide began to turn in the 51st minute as wing Jamba Ulengo suffered another horrible moment in defence, wing Shaun Stevenson leaving him flatfooted as the Chiefs attacked off a lineout, and then grubbering through and regathering the ball for the first try of the match. Cruden converted to give the Chiefs a 10-9 lead.
That was quickly stretched to 13-9 with another Cruden penalty after Bulls captain Adriaan Strauss stupidly went off his feet at a ruck in front of his own poles, but the visitors had a stroke of luck in the 62nd minute when a dominant Chiefs scrum was penalised for illegal wheeling, Pollard’s long-range penalty closing the gap to one point (12-13).
But it was all the Chiefs in the final 15 minutes as the Bulls suffered another late-game fade.
The Bulls lost a four-man lineout in their own 22 but a superb tackle by lock RG Snyman prevented fullback Damian McKenzie from knifing through to score. But an earlier infringement allowed Cruden to kick a penalty and stretch the lead back to 16-12.
A lovely 71st-minute move from a scrum saw scrumhalf Tawera Kerr-Barlow running at the line before putting a grubber through that McKenzie raced on to and dotted down.
Another slick backline move with two minutes remaining saw different angles of running and McKenzie bursting through, before replacement prop Atunaisa Moli charged through and reached over the line for the bonus point try.
The scrums were hard-fought transactions, but they did allow the Chiefs to release some of the pressure on them as they had the edge in that set-piece. Nyakane’s move to tighthead was again a talking point.
Lock Lood de Jager was a hardworking – if not always accurate – member of the pack, with partner Snyman also shining, while Jannes Kirsten came off the bench after 20 minutes to replace eighthman Arno Botha and made his presence felt. He should be in the starting line-up next week.
Jesse Kriel was impressive at fullback and halfbacks Rudy Paige and Pollard were on the same page.
But while the Bulls were much-improved, being gutsy losers is not a tag they or their supporters will take kindly to.
Chiefs – Tries: Shaun Stevenson, Damian McKenzie, Atunaisa Moli. Conversions: Aaron Cruden (2). Penalties: Cruden (3).
Bulls – Penalties: Handre Pollard (4).