Morné Steyn potted four drop goals in the Bulls’ clinical 36-23 win over the Crusaders at Loftus Versfeld.
Steyn racked up 21 points in a masterfully controlled display of play-off rugby. The result guarantees a home final for the Bully Boys, and the performance will give them confidence ahead of their meeting with the Chiefs next Saturday.
The scoreline belies the enormity of the Bulls’ blend of physical effort and mental determination. They were always favourites before kickoff, but after the opening exchanges, there may have been some doubt.
The most frightening thing about the Crusaders’ initial dominance was the ease with which they attacked and the tenacity with which they defended. It would’ve taken a fantastic leap of faith to predict a Bulls’ lead at the end of the half, and yet, the Bully Boys recovered from a 13-point deficit to lead 27-20 at the break.
The Saders had the better of the initial breakdown exchange, and despite a score by Bryan Habana, they controlled possession well. Adam Whitelock finished a great move to regain the lead, and a clinical touchline conversion by the super-cool Leon MacDonald extended the advantage.
A high hoist was well contested by Kieran Reid who soared above a bewildered Akona Ndungane, claimed the ball, swiveled and scored.
But the hosts never panicked. Apart from a few defensive errors their tactical approach had been spot on from the first, and they persisted with this strategy for the remainder of the half. The difference was their accuracy, and despite a 20-3 scoreline in favour of the Crusaders, the Bulls played with full confidence.
Ndungane atoned for his earlier sin by finishing off a wonderful wide strike. Fourie du Preez had the expected impact with the boot, but his exemplary distribution and vision was apparent throughout. Spotting an opportunity out wide, Du Preez spun a flat cut-out pass to Zane Kirchner, who in turn drew the final man to set up Ndungane for a simple run-in.
Steyn’s line kicking was accurate and his goal-kicking impeccable, but his two first-half drop goals ensured the Bulls maintained their point-scoring momentum. The Crusaders began to grow desperate at the tackle point and it was at this stage No 8 Thomas Waldrom was sent to the sin bin.
The visitors launched one final wave of attack that was successfully turned over by the rampant Bulls. Pierre Spies ran a clever support line and embarrassed the Crusaders’ outside backs, beating them in a 40m sprint for the tryline.
The second half began much as the first with the Crusaders applying an incredible amount of pressure at the breakdown. A drop goal by scrumhalf Andy Ellis got the Crusaders within striking distance, and it was clear the team with the better temperament would take the spoils.
Steyn never shown any sign of missing a penalty opportunity in the 67th minute, nor did he look like fluffing a third drop attempt from right in front. At 33-23, the Bulls were playing smart rugby and looking more comfortable. Conversely, the Crusaders were dropping passes and racking up the errors in their mad scramble to reduce the deficit.
The death blow arrived in the 71st minute when Steyn lined up his fourth drop goal, this time from the halfway line. The Crusaders barely looked up to see if the kick was true and Steyn never stuck around once he’d made contact. The kick was as good as three points as soon as it had left his boot.
The Crusaders never gave up, but neither did the Bulls, winding down the clock in the final minutes to deny the visitors any consolation.
By Jon Cardinelli