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Ken Borland


Beaten Bulls show the spirit that ensures they won’t be temps but contenders in Currie Cup semis

Posted on June 12, 2023 by Ken

Cornal Hendricks scored two tries for the Bulls against the Free State Cheetahs.

The Bulls may have scraped into the Currie Cup semi-finals, but the passion and desire they showed in going down 27-31 to the Free State Cheetahs in a match of high drama at Loftus Versfeld on Saturday, securing two vital bonus points despite suffering a red card in a moment of temporary madness, means they cannot be considered temps in this competition but genuine contenders.

The Bulls nearly won the match, the final whistle going with their maul four metres from the Cheetahs’ tryline. But by scoring four tries and finishing within seven points of the Free Staters, they earned two invaluable log points that left them on 38 points, two ahead of the Lions and out of reach of Western Province (37pts), despite their thrashing of the Sharks.

Considering they played the entire second half with 14 men after eighthman Elrigh Louw was red-carded in the 38th minute, it was the stoutest of efforts, showing that the Bulls do have that never-say-die quality that will make them very dangerous semi-final opponents. They will play the Cheetahs again this weekend in Bloemfontein, but if the Free Staters underestimate the Bulls based on how they reached the last four, they will tempt fate most foolishly.

Louw was sent from the field after his shoulder made contact with the head of Cheetahs flank Siba Qoma, as he rushed into a ruck and made a clumsy attempt to clean.

By that stage, the Cheetahs had already turned around the momentum after the Bulls made a flying start, rushing into a 19-0 lead in the first quarter. With halftime beckoning, the visitors had closed to 14-19 and had lifted themselves from a lethargic start, really making their presence felt in defence and at the breakdown.

Although flyhalf Morne Steyn, in his farewell game at Loftus Versfeld, kicked a 42nd-minute penalty to stretch the lead to 22-14, the Cheetahs took control of the match as they scored two tries in five minutes to open up a 28-22 lead.

Excellent flyhalf Siya Masuku, who will be in Sharks’ colours next season, seemed to be clothing himself in either a cloak of invisibility or the most slippery substance known to man as he weaved his way through the heart of the Bulls team to score an exceptional try. Masuku succeeded with the conversion too, as he did with all four of his other kicks at goal.

In the 49th minute, hooker Marnus van der Merwe, who was like a bull in a china shop, produced another storming run that left him just short of the line, but scrumhalf Rewan Kruger picked up the ball and dived over to score.

It was not as if the Cheetahs closed up shop then either, but the Bulls just upped their game with sheer desperation. They too scrambled in defence against a team that is always so dangerous with ball-in-hand.

Masuku had the final say with a 71st-minute penalty won at a ruck, but the Bulls were up close in their rearview mirrors throughout the final quarter.

Replacement flyhalf Chris Smith was brought into action in the 54th minute as Steyn departed his home ground for the last time. The Springbok flyhalf had been more inspirational in his running of the backline than with the boot, missing three of his six kicks at goal.

It was Smith’s boot that ultimately put the Bulls into the semi-finals as, with the ferocious Cheetahs defence in his face and cutting him off from his centres, he put the deftest of crosskicks into the corner for wing Cornal Hendricks to score his second try. It was also the fourth for his team, bringing the first bonus point, and it dragged the home side back to within one point of the Free Staters, setting up a second log point.

The other legend being farewelled, hooker Bismarck du Plessis, came off the bench and had a big impact in the closing stages, both in the set-pieces and in bringing some added presence at the rucks.

The Bulls had begun the match in inspired fashion with three tries in the first 14 minutes.

Fullback Johan Goosen’s prowess in the air allowed the Bulls to attack the blindside and, with the Cheetahs defence slow to react, outside centre Stedman Gans was able to put Hendricks away for the opening try.

Two minutes later, Free State dropped the ball in their backline and wing David Kriel pounced, swivelling out of a tackle and then passing to centre Harold Vorster, who was quickly up in support and raced away for the second try.

The third try went to scrumhalf Embrose Papier, who is in such great form at the moment, but it is doubtful whether he will be able to play in the semi-final due to a hamstring injury. He sidestepped a defender and streaked away for a try after Ruan Vermaak’s super offload, the lock having burst clear after Steyn put him in a hole with a skip-pass.

The Cheetahs were very competitive in the scrums and they opened their account after getting a penalty there and going for a lineout deep in Bulls’ territory. Van der Merwe burst clear from the maul and then the similarly-built centre David Brits muscled over for the try.

Their second try also came off a lineout, but this time with a slick backline move, fullback Tapiwa Mafura dummying and then breaking the line, wing Daniel Kasende then providing a strong finish.

Given the quality the Cheetahs showed, the 14-man Bulls were just relieved to still be in the running for the Currie Cup crown.

“The team showed a lot of character and desire because the game could really have got away from us,” assistant coach Hugo van As said after the game. “We still had two or three opportunities to win right at the end, a great chance with our maul.

“But you’ve got to give the Cheetahs great credit for the way they stopped our maul and the breakdown was a big concern for us as well. We were beaten there, they came really hard at us and disrupted a lot of our plays.

“We’ve got to adapt on the day and make sure we look after our ball better. We saw in the first 20 minutes that when we get it right then we can score tries, it was a huge positive to see the interplay between forwards and backs.

“The team desperately want to send Morne and Bismarck off with a win and there is still a lot to play for. The hunger and desire is there to go further, we just need to be more clinical and make better decisions,” Van As said.

Scorers

Bulls: Tries – Cornal Hendricks (2), Harold Vorster, Embrose Papier. Conversions – Morne Steyn (2). Penalty – Steyn.

Free State Cheetahs: Tries – David Brits, Daniel Kasende, Siya Masuku, Rewan Kruger. Conversions – Masuku (4). Penalty – Masuku.

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