The Bulls saw off a late Force fightback to sneak a 32-29 win at Loftus.
The Bulls held a 26-10 lead after an hour but blew a four-try bonus point with poor finishing and a lack of discipline in the final quarter. At this stage prop Gurthro Steenkamp knocked on with the line at his mercy that would have sealed the five points, but the home team would have rued the mistakes throughout the game that put them under unnecessary pressure.
A frantic start to the match saw the Bulls lead 8-7 after 10 minutes.
Giteau was happy throughout to test the Bulls’ back three with his variety of kicks and five minutes in he found their positional play wanting. Morne Steyn’s penalty had just put the Bulls in a 3-0 lead, but Giteau chipped straight down the middle of the field and Drew Mitchell had no one in front of him as the fullback cruised over under the poles.
Conversely the Bulls’ tactical kicking was not up to its usual high standards in the opening half which meant they couldn’t win the ball back in the contest in the air.
Bryan Habana did out-step hooker Tai McIsaac from broken play on his way over the whitewash and the Bok winger’s celebration expressed his relief. It was a great moment for the under pressure wing, but two minutes before half-time he was reeled in by Giteau off a turnover to show his pace, or loss of it, is still a worry.
The Bulls heavies did well early on to hamper the Force at breakdown, but both teams struggled initally to get clean ball off the lineout and scrum. As the Bulls jumpers asserted their dominance at the set-piece and they won quality ball, the structured Force defence meant they struggled to get over the advantage line.
Leading 10-8 two minutes before the break, the visitors would have been content with their progress. However, a couple of tries either side of half-time via prop Werner Kruger and fullback Zane Kirchner should have been the knock out blows.
Deon Stegmann, who outplayed his opposite number David Pocock, stole another turnover to set up Kruger’s score, while the second was straight from the playbook. Victor Matfield claimed prime attacking ball off the back of the lineout and Akona Ndungane made the initial bust through the middle which made the space for Kirchner as he eased over.
The Bulls were now in search of the bonus point, but they built the pressure and Steyn was happy to knock over three penalties as they cruised to a 14-point advantage (29-15).
Steyn was then yellow-carded with 12 minutes remaining for a late charge on Giteau, which caused a tense finish for his team-mates as centres Josh Tatupu and Ryan Cross scored as the Force claimed two log points and sent shockwaves through Loftus.
Steyn’s replacement Burton Francis had earlier slotted three points but not before the Force pushed for what would have been a surprise triumph.
The Bulls now have two South African derbies against the Cheetahs (home) and Sharks (away) which will determine whether the Loftus faithful will see play-off rugby.
By Grant Ball