The Vodacom Blue Bulls secured a home semi-final with a pulsating 41-31 victory over the Cheetahs at Loftus.
However, the Cheetahs managed to pick up a bonus point that sees them finish top of the log (on points difference) and they will meet the fourth-placed Sharks in Bloemfontein next weekend. The other semi-final sees Western Province travel to Loftus for a North-South derby against the Bulls.
Ironically, the Cheetahs have beaten the Sharks twice in this year’s competition, while Province have beaten the Bulls twice.
The final league match of the season more than lived up to the hype, with both sides prepared to spread the ball wide, while embracing the physical contest. Unlike last year’s final, however, the players managed to keep their cool for the majority of the game.
The pumped-up Bulls got off to the perfect start when Dries Scholtz barged his way over the tryline following a quick penalty tap. That Derick Hougaard did not take the easy three points was an early sign of the Bulls’ desire to score four tries for the bonus point (and hopefully top the log).
The Cheetahs showed the same attitude, putting a kickable penalty into touch from which Ryno van der Merwe scored after a trademark Free State driving maul. But the home side regained the lead minutes later when Heinie Adams exposed the defence around the fringes and Danie Rossouw planted the ball on the tryline.
The Cheetahs reduced the gap to two points when Philip Burger (who started at fullback ahead of Bevin Fortuin) fielded a kick inside his half and sprinted 60m down the right-hand side touchline to score in the corner. However, Scholtz then grabbed his second by running straight over Willem de Waal, after a Bulls’ backline switch.
Both teams lost a man, 10 minutes before the break, when JP Nel and Jannie du Plessis were yellow-carded after a brawl broke out. Unlike Jonathan Kaplan, who failed to take early control of last year’s heated final, referee Marius Joubert showed that such behaviour would not be tolerated on his watch.
The Bulls dominated the final stages of the half and claimed the bonus-point try when Marius Delport finished off a sustained period of attack. The score knocked the Lions out of semi-final contention and gave the Bulls a 26-12 lead.
The Bulls went further ahead two minutes after the break when Akona Ndungane intercepted a poor pass from Michael Claassens and dotted down under the posts.
The Cheetahs hit back when a perfectly timed pass from Eddie Fredericks sent Burger away for his second try, before Pierre Spies crashed over for the Bulls’ sixth.
However, the critical score, in terms of the Currie Cup log, came at the end of the third quarter when Burger found space again and sent Gavin Passens away for the Cheetahs’ bonus point try that ensured they would finish the league season in poll position.
A Hougaard penalty gave the Bulls some breathing space, before Burger claimed his hat-trick to make it 41-31.
The Cheetahs should have been reduced to 14 men with seven minutes to go, after they lost possession near the Bulls tryline. The loose ball was booted ahead, only for replacement Quinton Davids to hold Spies back and concede the penalty. A yellow card would have been an appropriate punishment.
In the end, though, it didn’t matter.
Bulls - Tries: Dries Scholtz (2), Danie Rossouw, Marius Delport, Akona Ndungane, Pierre Spies. Conversions: Derick Hougaard (4). Pen: Hougaard.
Cheetahs - Tries: Ryno van der Merwe, Philip Burger (3), Gavin Passens. Conversions: Willem de Waal (3).
By Simon Borchardt