Champs show their mettle

The Bulls produced a clinical performance in Soweto to down the Crusaders 39-24 and surge into the Super 14 final.

When one thinks of sports most historic contests on neutral ground, few would argue that the world heavyweight title fight between the champion George Foreman and challenger Muhammad Ali in Kinshasa, Zaire, was amongst the greatest. ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ was characterised by the skill the fighters exhibited, with technical precision and controlled brutality a feature of the epic. Ultimately Ali’s tactical intelligence, supreme conditioning, superlative defence and utter refusal to succumb saw him emerge victorious. The Bulls would embody all those characteristics. This time, however, it would be the champion to leave his challenger on the canvas.

That evening it was primarily Ali’s defence that tired the attack-minded Foreman to the point where he could no longer sustain his effort, and similarly tonight defence – accurate, precise and brutal in its execution – laid the foundation for victory.

The Crusaders made no secret of their intent to hit up in the wide channels, and they tried valiantly, only to be repelled time after time. The Bulls’ defensive success stemmed from their ability to cut down the Crusaders’ time and space through an up-and-in system. They therefore found none of the joy they had at Loftus a fortnight ago, when they cut the Bulls to shreds.

On attack the defending champs were a mixture of brilliant and ordinary, but enough of the former to attain the result they desired, with their shortcomings plastered over by the excellence of their goal kicker Morne Steyn, who missed just one of nine attempts.

The match mimicked that legendary boxing bout with the champion starting stronger. All the talk from the Crusaders in the build up to the match was about their intentions to run the Bulls ragged, and that proved to be more than just rhetoric. However, their cavalier style cost them dearly when, in the third minute, they surrendered possession in midfield, allowing the Bulls to launch a counter-attack that swung right then snapped left, culminating in Pierre Spies breaking the Crusaders’ defensive line from close range. Steyn began his goal kicking masterclass with a conversion.

There seemed to be just cause for the Bulls to be confident of a second try two minutes later, but Danie Rossouw’s was denied by the TMO to earn the Crusaders a reprieve. Steyn added another three points, but the Crusaders were soon in the contest, employing a Bulls-like rolling maul to drive over the goal line, Richie McCaw emerging from the heap of bodies with the pill. Carter kicked the conversion amidst a chorus of boos and the deafening noise of Vuvuzelas (we’re were in Soweto after all), but the Bulls soon had their opponents punch drunk when Zane Kirchner poached the ball out of the sky to touch down.

The build-up to the try featured a woeful attempt to field an up-and-under, with the ball bouncing off the head of a Crusaders player. It would become a trend for the Crusaders, and their inconsistency under the high ball seriously undermined their challenge. The Bulls sensed that vulnerability and exploited it throughout the match, like a wolf would do to the compromised mobility of a wounded deer.

A Carter penalty was soon cancelled by a 55m three pointer from Steyn, before the match settled into an arm-wrestle in which period the best scoring opportunity fell to Spies, who grubbered ahead twice with the goal line at his mercy, only to see the ball bounce unfavourably 15m short.

It stood at 23-10 at half-time, with the Bulls seemingly in control and poised to take a significant step to towards the final if they could cross the whitewash first after the restart. But the seven-time champs had emerged from their corner rejuvenated, and finally gained some success from their expansive style when Sean Maitland blazed down the touchline to score directly from a scrum.

Being breached on first phase wouldn’t have pleased the Bulls, as would their newly-developed lack of control at the collision points on attack, two such failings from Spies costing them wonderful opportunities to extend their lead. Steyn kept the momentum up with his boot, but the nine-point lead was an uncomfortable one, with the Crusaders looking intent on an upset.

Fundamental errors marked the next 20 minutes of play, with neither side seizing the initiative. However, the final quarter was always going to be a measure of the New Zealanders’ resolve after their taxing travel schedule in the last month. Still they soldiered on, refusing to relent and forcing the Bulls to scramble desperately to deny them.

The Bulls lacked the composure and clinical edge they had in the first half. At times like those that your big match players make a statement and Fourie du Preez underlined his brilliance when he broke blind around an unguarded scrum fringe and darted in from 25m. Steyn landed the conversion and in an instant the mood had turned from a pensive one to one of optimism. That’s the power of Du Preez. To borrow Ali’s famous line, he had floated purposefully all evening, and then stung when it most mattered.

When the metronomic Steyn banked his fifth and sixth penalties of the evening to establish a formidable 36-17 lead it was akin to the left hook Ali had landed to bring Foreman’s face up to exposure, and the right that decked him to end the bout. There would be a late response from the Crusaders, but by that time the Bulls had already secured their passage to the final.

An award-winning film called We were Kings would later be made of the Ali-Foreman fight. The Bulls cannot claim the crown just yet, but they it will take a supernatural effort from their final opponents to end their reign.

By Ryan Vrede, at Orlando Stadium