The Brumbies struck late against the Bulls to win an enthralling match 32-31 in Canberra .
An eight-try thriller culminated in Brumbies flyhalf Christian Lealiifano dancing through the defensive line to score the try that ultimately proved to be the one that ceased the Bulls’ fantastic challenge. Two points could have easily have been five for them, but instead it’s the Brumbies who keep their play-off dream intact.
The Brumbies made their attacking intentions clear from the outset, shunning an attritional war of the heavies and instead opting for an expansive approach. The pace and width with which they attacked stretched the Bulls, who soon found themselves trailing.
Mitchell Chapman rounded off a move that saw the hosts shepherd the Bulls around the track at will, before finding the flanker who corkscrewed through two tackles to score.
The Brumbies were clearly in the mood to entertain and continued to lay siege on the Bulls’ tryline. Their skill level in that period was truly phenomenal, especially considering the speed at which they were playing at. They starved the Bulls of possession and when they did relinquish the pill, it was only so one of their primary kickers could drive them punting into Bulls territory.
But their solitary error in that period cost them seven points and, more importantly, gave the Bulls an entry into a match in which they had been passive spectators. Lealiifano threw a speculative pass in the Bulls’ 22 and Bryan Habana was on hand to intercept.
It was a throwback to when Habana was at his irrepressible best in terms of anticipation, but certainly not in terms of pace. Two years ago defenders wouldn’t have even entertained a thought of chasing the winger, but watching Francis Fainifo, by no means a speed merchant, hunt him down reinforced the widely held perception that Habana’s afterburners have been repossessed. Only Fainifo’s poor tackle technique allowed Habana to score. Has the ballistic missile become nothing more than a pop gun?
The Bulls settled into a familiar pattern and troubled the Brumbies when they kept the ball through the phases. But a set phase blow-out resulted in them falling behind yet again.
First they conceded a tighthead in the Brumbies’ 22. The ball was shovelled out to Tyrone Smith, who cleared to 5m from the Bulls’ tryline. Then they completely butchered the resultant lineout, spilling the ball off the top. Peter Kimlin simply scooped up and scored.
The Brumbies should have gone further ahead when Lealiifano broke from inside his 22 and set off on a run that culminated on him taking the wrong option in the Bulls’ 22. That proved to be a costly error, as the Bulls levelled the score at 17-all with a converted try to Zane Kirchner just five minutes later.
But the momentum shifted once more just before half-time, albeit through a debatable five pointer. Stephen Hoiles appeared to knock the ball on in his attempt to collect it, but referee Chris Pollock failed to spot the infringement and the No 8 bust through some soft defence to score.
The Brumbies lead 22-17 at half-time but it was always questionable whether they would be able to sustain the pace and intensity with which they played in the first half. It seemed that their coaching staff didn’t believe they could, and changed tactics, opting to kick for field position and keep it close to their forwards.
This played to the strengths of the Bulls, who were powerful at the collision points and outpunted their opponents. In addition, the Brumbies lineout went to the dogs, robbing them of an important attacking platform.
With the Bulls’ confidence soaring they crafted a contender for Try of the Season. Pierre Spies was the catalyst, busting tackles and surging down field, while Habana, Steyn and Danie Rossouw played a supporting role in the build up to Wynand Olivier’s converted try.
The Bulls were in sight of a tour defining victory soon thereafter when Spies smashed over from close range after purposeful build up play. Steyn added the extras to give his side a 31-25 lead with 10 minutes remaining.
But ill-discipline allowed the Brumbies to draw within six, and three minutes later they were celebrating wildly when Lealiifano sliced through the defensive line for the decisive score. Mortlock converted front directly in front of the posts and the Brumbies went into defensive mode.
The Bulls tried valiantly but simply couldn’t breach a well organised defence and were denied the victory that would have sent them top of the log.
Despite the bitter disappointment of the loss, their performance will encourage coach Frans Ludeke, who’ll know that eliminating basic errors like those which gifted the Brumbies a couple of tries could see his side make a massive charge for the play-off.
There was to be no fairytale ending to the tour, but the Bulls will take solace in the fact that they’ve lost just thrice in the last three years at Loftus when returning from Australasia. They remain very well placed for a home semi-final.
By Ryan Vrede