A brave but ultimately fruitless effort by the Bulls saw them go down 23-21 to the Blues in Auckland.
It was a much improved all round performance from the Bulls who contained and countered efficiently. There’s no doubt that they were the better team, particularly for the last quarter of the match. But nobody will remember the performance. The loss, their fifth in seven matches, is the bottom line.
But for the first time this season they looked like a competent unit, worthy of the billing of defending champions. The improvement was built on solid defence, where they were patient and accurate, better tactical kicking and a committed chasing line that seldom allowed the Blues back three to get into the game and a good tackle fight, that often halted the Blues’ powerful ball carriers in their tracks and stopped the continuity they thrive on.
Pierre Spies, returning after an eight month illness lay-off, was impressive in this regard – his first contribution a crunching tackle on Benson Stanley which drove the midfielder 4m back. Sadly his impact on attack was limited, but his inclusion gave the back row a balance it’s lacked throughout the campaign. Wikus van Heerden was relieved of his ball carrying duties and allowed to play more towards the ball, while Pedrie Wannenburg thrived in a looser role. The trio were the standout performers for the Bulls, although Bryan Habana’s efforts on attack and defence must be lauded.
It was his outstanding counterattack that gave them the lead with 15 minutes to play, but they subsequently botched three great opportunities that would have killed off the Blues, the most telling of which came when Zane Kirchner knocked on in the in-goal area with three minutes left.
Their last chance came when Habana took a quick throw to Derick Hougaard, but the pivot knocked on, and with that any chance of an upset victory disappeared. They should have gone for the drop goal in the preceding passage of play. Hougaard was 15m out in the pocket, but Danie Rossouw opted to take it up one phase too many and conceded the turnover. It’s little errors like that that is the difference between this side and the 2007 champions.
Despite their possession and territorial advantage, the Blues hardly troubled the Bulls throughout the match. They’ve looked an average unit for the last three weeks now, and their performance certainly wasn’t the stuff title contenders are made off. Their ball control through the phases was poor, while in the first half they often had two players attacking the same space. They Bulls drift defence ushered them across the field when they looked to play expansively and the heavies were largely impenetrable when they got more direct.
Two debatable tries gave the Blues the ascendancy. The first to Troy Flavell, although television replays failed to prove conclusively that he had control of the ball when grounding it. In the second half Isaia Toeava appeared to be preventing Pierre Spies from making a tackle on Keven Mealamu, who slid around the blindside of a ruck to score. But the Bulls cannot lament those decisions, as they had opportunities to seal the victory.
Van Heerden powered over from close range soon after Flavell’s try, and the Bulls nearly struck again when Habana was bundled into touch by John Afoa just before half-time. At 10-7 they were certainly still in the match, but Mealamu’s five pointer opened up a useful lead.
However, Van Heerden bagged his brace to drag his side back into contention. But the Blues got themselves into the Bulls’ red zone, and capitalised through a Nick Evans drop goal.
Their opportunities to win came and went, and Bulls head coach Frans Ludeke was left to ponder what could have been. The pressure on him grows and with the Force laying in wait in their final tour match, his record doesn’t look like improving any time soon.
Blues - Try: Troy Flavell, Keven Mealamu. Conversion: Nick Evans (2). Penalty: Evans (2), Drop goal: Evans
Bulls - Try: Wikus Van Heerden (2), Derick Kuun. Conversion: Derick Hougaard (3)