Francois Hougaard scored a last-gasp try to steal a 40-35 victory that secures the Bulls a home semi-final.
In time, when the great Super Rugby matches are recounted, this epic will feature prominently. Certainly it wasn’t a technically flawless match, but it was an enthralling one between sides of the highest pedigree and ones possessing irrepressible spirits.
The Bulls refused to be broken despite being outplayed for much of the match, and that resilience was embodied by Hougaard, who was outstanding throughout the contest and fittingly decided the result.
Morne Steyn’s drop goal was charged down with the siren having sounded, but the ball was shifted wide to Bandise Maku. The hooker committed two defenders and popped a hopeful pass to Hougaard, who snatched the ball as it was tumbling to the ground and sprinted for the tryline with a smile the size of Pretoria strewn across his face.
A brilliant conclusion to the most brilliant match.
Given the prize at stake for the Bulls, they were always going to adopt a Test-like pattern, with priority placed on tactical kicking, direct phase play and defence.
It was the latter facet of play that let them down, and they constantly struggled to resist the rampant Crusaders. Playing with 14 men for 20 minutes amplified the complexity of their task. However, the Crusaders will lament missing opportunities to permanently floor the defending champions. You don’t give this team a chance to drag themselves from the canvas, and the Crusaders learned that lesson this evening.
The script was predictable for the visitors – they were always going to be reluctant to rumble in the tight. That is the Bulls’ domain after all, and the Crusaders’ success over the Bulls has always been built on a high-tempo, expansive approach.
The manner in which they cut them to ribbons in the backline was alarming. The Bulls haven’t looked as vulnerable as they did tonight since 2008, and it said everything about their character and defensive resolve that they led at half-time, given that they had missed 19 tackles and had 25% possession.
Steyn opened the scoring with a penalty, but the Crusaders struck a double blow, Brad Thorn rounding off a move that featured outstanding inter-play between some tight forwards, while Dan Carter, ordinary in recent weeks, reminded all of his class with a sniping break and offload to Andy Ellis who scored. Carter sunk both conversions, and the Crusaders had signaled their intent.
Steyn kicked a penalty and drop goal to steady the punch drunk Bulls, but they were soon on the ropes once more and vulnerable as a result of Danie Rossouw’s sin binning. A vintage Crusaders backline move was finished by winger Sean Maitland to further assert their dominance.
The Bulls were losing in every facet of play that counted, and being intelligently nullified at the set phases, particularly the lineout as a result of the Crusaders’ insistence on taking quick feeds.
A rebuttal was desperately needed, and the Bulls delivered, thanks in large part to the superlative Hougaard.
The young winger blitzed the Crusaders’ defence after the ball was turned over deep in his half, and then set up their second try just before half-time with a dazzling break down the touchline. The ball was recycled quickly and sent wide, where Gary Botha and Rossouw combined skillfully to set up a decisive try for Victor Matfield just before half-time. Steyn converted to go with an earlier penalty, and unbelievably the Bulls led 24-19 at the break.
However, the onslaught didn’t abate after the restart, and a seven-minute siege culminated in hooker Ti’i Paulo scoring a converted try.
The Bulls came within 5m of wresting back the initiative, but were repelled by spirited tackling and had to settle for a penalty to take a one point lead that was wiped out two minutes later with a Carter drop goal.
Crusaders wing Zac Guilford continued the solid defensive display with a try-saver on Gerhard van den Heever in his in-goal area, but Steyn regained the lead soon thereafter with his fifth three pointer.
The next try would be decisive to the outcome, and for a period it looked like the Bulls were most likely to strike. But flawed handling, a lack of composure and resilient defence compromised their attack.
Their cause was further crippled when Van den Heever was binned for a spear tackle. Carter banked the resultant penalty, but Steyn refused to be outdone, landing a wobbly drop from 30m out.
Five minutes to go. Who would hold their nerve?
Carter lined up a 56m penalty attempt and threaded it. The Bulls drove into the Crusaders’ 22m from the restart…surely now…but Steyn’s drop goal was charged down and the ball spat loose before being scooped up by Stephan Dippenaar on the Crusaders’ 10m line.
It went wide, Maku rumbled up and dished outside to Hougaard, who gained demi-god status and sent 50 000 disciples into an absolute frenzy. Sensational and breathtaking.
The key question now is: Who’ll stop the Bulls?
By Ryan Vrede