The Bulls won their second Super 14 title in three years with a resounding 61-17 victory over the Chiefs at Loftus.
The Bulls shattered the perception that they are the tournament’s bores by schooling the supposed great entertainers in the science of attacking play. They scored eight tries to the Chiefs’ two, and it could have been more had they taken the plethora of chances they created. That perception should now be laid to rest once and for all.
To single out individuals in a monumental team effort seems unfair. No player in a blue shirt left anything on the pitch. But such was Fourie Du Preez’s imperious display that it commands special mention.
The scrumhalf was the fulcrum around which a dynamic Bulls axis revolved, and was the galvanising force after the Bulls had fallen behind early. The manner in which he controlled the tempo and flow of the match was a throwback to his best form in the 2007 World Cup. What would South African rugby be without the genius in the No 9 shirt?
The same question can be asked of Victor Matfield, Bakkies Botha and Bryan Habana, and after this evening’s performance Dewald Potgieter confirmed that he will one day surely play alongside the aforementioned quartet.
Chiefs coach Ian Foster sounded a warning that they had ‘come to play’, but it was his side who would be made to front in defence for the majority of the contest.
They wouldn’t have envisioned picking themselves off the grass countless times or chasing shadows as much as they did. But they did and were beaten, literally and figuratively, by an excellent team who decimated them in a final they were expected to approach conservatively.
Forget, for a second, how well they played with ball in hand, and they were outstanding, or how accurate they were in the execution of their kicking game – it was their brutality at the contact points, and their desperation in scramble defence that said everything about how much they wanted this.
You can’t coach that, and when teams are as closely matched as these two were, it’s often the difference between champions and runners-up.
Taking nothing away from a tactically sound performance, it was their superior will to win manifested through their defensive effort and fuelled by 55 000 screaming disciples in the stands, that saw them crowned champions.
Dominance at the tackle point was always going to be decisive for the Bulls. On attack it ensured their primary ball carriers breached the advantage line often enough to pressure the Chiefs. On defence the granitic Blue wall resisted the Chiefs’ surges.
The Chiefs’ potency leans heavily on a quick ruck recycle, but their players were getting pummelled in contact, giving the Bulls the ascendency when the carrier hit the deck. The Chiefs’ outside backs where written up prior to kick-off, and justifiably so. However the Bulls, through a purposeful and spirited defensive effort, cut their lifeline and they died a slow and very public death.
The Chiefs failed to strike on land, and were similarly unsuccessful in the air, with commanders Matfield and Botha bossing that facet of play. Technically and in terms of tactical intelligence, Matfield is unmatched. But his prodigious talent is amplified by his ability to infiltrate the psyche of his opponents. The Chiefs’ hookers and their jumpers will protest to the contrary, but this evening their worst fears became reality.
The Chiefs did score first, completely against the run of play, with Lelia Masaga rounding off a move that saw Stephen Donald collected an up-and-under and find space to run, exposing the Bulls scattered defence before dishing inside to the winger who cantered home. That was as good as it ever got for them.
The Bulls’ response, lead by the brilliant Du Preez, was emphatic.
The stadium floodlights went out twice in a half hour before kick-off, but in the seven-minute period after Masaga’s try, it was the Chiefs who were knocked lights out.
The Bulls gave the ball plenty of spin and Zane Kirchner sliced through a gap before being scragged 7m short. The Chiefs infringed at the breakdown, and while the they snoozed, Du Preez’s mind was ticking over. He quick tapped and powered through Stephen Donald’s tackle to score. Morne Steyn added the extras, and the halfback pair, excellent in partnership throughout the contest, combined in style to give their side the lead four minutes later.
The 9-10 axis will get the press, but it was Wynand Olivier’s brutal dump tackle on Aled de Malmanche, which dislodged the ball, that was the catalyst for the try. Steyn snapped up the loose ball and threw a no-look pass to Du Preez, who sprinted for the corner.
The Chiefs players were smug after their early try, but their confidence was destroyed when Bryan Habana cracked on the afterburners and scooped a perfectly weighted Du Preez grubber off his bootlaces en route to the tryline.
Steyn had converted Du Preez’s second try from the right touchline, and showed that his skill knows no bounds when he sunk Habana’s five pointer from the opposite end.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. This was a final, and finals are characterised by low-risk rugby. But the Bulls flipped the script when their opponents least expected it. 21-7. The Chiefs were visibly and utterly demoralised.
The visitors were being battered in contact, and with every massive hit from the tireless Potgieter, workmanlike Gurthro Steenkamp or effervescent Derick Kuun, one could sense their collective self-belief diminish further.
Steyn kept the scoreboard rolling with a drop-goal and penalty, but the decisive blow was landed just before half-time.
Special players do special things at crucial times. Habana was the embodiment of this adage.
The Chiefs had shown a penchant for ball in hand rugby throughout the tournament, but it seemed they had had enough of being manhandled, and shifted the ball aimlessly. The master poacher was on hand to exploit their rudderless attack and stole the ball from the awaiting receiver. Nobody was going to catch him given a 20m head start. Steyn was spot on again, and at 34-7, ‘BULLS 2009′ was being engraved on the trophy.
But for the only period of the match the Bulls lacked the intensity and organisation in defence that had characterised their effort in the first half, and conceded a soft try early in the second – Donald passing inside to Muliaina, who cut the line after the Bulls’ defence had been depleted through numerous phases.
Steyn and Donald traded penalties, but the Bulls soon laid any fears of a dramatic comeback to rest.
Matfield had spent the evening bossing the lineouts and smashing Sione Lauaki in tackles, but he showed his athleticism when went over the top of a ruck to place the ball with one hand.
Olivier then finished a move that swept right then veered left, before Pierre Spies brought up the half century of points with an intercept try in which he sprinted 70m. Danie Rossouw concluded the carnage with a try just before full-time.
Champions again. This time there was no last minute drama as there had been in 2007. It was simply one of the most comprehensive victories by any side, in any code, in a major final, made even more admirable by the fact that they finished 10th in 2008.
Take a bow you brilliant Bulls.
By Ryan Vrede, at Loftus