A last minute Ryan Cross try stole a 15-14 victory for the Force over the Bulls.
The Bulls spent the entire second half defending and eventually that pressure had to tell. They cracked when they could least afford to, and with this defeat their play-off charge is well and truly over, despite assertions they will make to the contrary.
They have just themselves to blame for this loss, their second close defeat in a fortnight, as they should have shut out the Force in the first half. Again ill discipline cost them, with Deon Stegmann receiving a yellow card in the dying minutes. That was their seventh card in eight matches (the worst record in the competition) but the Bulls continue to deny that they have a disciplinary problem.
They’ll point to an improved performance but nobody will remember that. All that matters is that haven’t won a game on tour and have now lost six of eight matches. No champion has ever been this poor in their Super 14 title defence, and with five tough games ahead it could get very ugly for Frans Ludeke (whose Super 14 record reads played 33 won 5) and his battered Bulls.
Their error rate was unacceptably high, and the fact that it was Springboks making the vast majority of those errors didn‘t help their cause at all.
They also lacked a clinical edge, and should have buried the Force before half-time – especially when the hosts were reduced to 14 men.
Two good scoring opportunities were spurned, the best of which came when they had camped in the Force 22m but knocked on.
For all the Force’s enterprise it was the Bulls who looked the more likely winners in the first half. For the most part they played the percentages well and looked to maximise their strengths by keeping it tight. When they did play wider their attack was far too lateral to seriously trouble the Force. Defensively they made significant strides, and looked impenetrable for the majority of the contest, until their numbers disadvantage cost them four valuable points.
The Bulls’ work at the breakdown and scrums was impressive as well, with their dominance in the former facet of play set up by strong work in the collisions, while Gurthro Steenkamp tormented AJ Whally all evening. That robbed the Force of an important attacking platform, yet the Bulls could not capitalise.
Cameron Shepherd opened the scoring with a penalty but the Bulls made the first telling impression on the contest, scoring through Bryan Habana. Akona Ndungane broke down the touchline but his lack of pace was exposed (did someone say speed programme?). The cover defence caught him but the Bulls cleaned the ruck efficiently and controlled the ball through three phases before shifting the ball Habana on the short side, who dashed in from 15m.
They piled on the pressure and had another opportunity five minutes later, however, Ndungane’s afterburners malfunctioned again and the chance was lost. They finally got it right just before half-time.
Ryan Cross sought to flick back a loose ball back towards his backline but Pedrie Wannenburg showed good awareness to intercept. Wannenburg powered into the Force 22m and offloaded to Habana and despite their best efforts no Force defender came close to stopping the flyer.
However, the Bulls’ worst fears were realised when they conceded a try five minutes into the second half. They spent the rest of the half defending a four point lead, although they certainly had their fair share of chances to win the match especially since the Force fed them with a number of opportunities to attack from broken field.
The Force found various ways of stuffing up scoring opportunities and never looked like breaking the defensive line, despite Matt Giteau‘s best efforts to galvanise his side.
Stegmann’s sin-binning gave the Force the opening they needed. They pounded up through the phases, committing defenders until the Bulls were thin out wide. Quick hands in the line saw the ball find Cross who dived over in the corner to confine the Bulls to defeat and ensure they won’t wake from their nightmare for at least another week.
Force - Try: Matt Giteau, Ryan Cross. Conversion: Cameron Shepherd. Penalty: Shepherd
Bulls - Try: Bryan Habana (2), Conversion: Derick Hougaard (2)
By Ryan Vrede