Brainy Bulls retain title

A masterful performance by halfbacks Fourie du Preez and Morne Steyn inspired the Bulls to a 25-17 win over the Stormers in Soweto.

Bright smiles and squalid surroundings. The ambivalence of bussing into Soweto is profound, as children race alongside an endless stream of vehicles in excitement. The messy and dilapidated backdrop does much to temper a feeling of optimism, but what’s clear is who the locals support. ‘Bulle’ chant the Sowetans from their shanties, and in the distance, the clamour of vuvuzelas begin to fill the unlikeliest of rugby cauldrons, the Orlando Stadium.

In arguably one of the most climactic finishes to the Super 14, neither the Bulls nor the Stormers needed the extra pressure. South Africa’s fiercest rivals battled for the southern hemisphere’s greatest prize to the drone of a thousand vuvuzelas, and light rain also increased the handling challenge. Fortunately, the energy outside the four lines was mirrored on the pitch, but only one team used that energy to good effect.

The Stormers began nervously, and even their trademark defence was off the pace. There were some jarring American football-style sacks that drove the Bulls back, but the Pretoria boys were often able to recover and launch a second wave of attack.

The Bulls’ success in this final was undoubtedly determined by their kicking game. Steyn’s stratosphere-seeking bombs were well complemented by a Bulls’ kick chase that left more than a few Stormers smarting. They provided the typical physicality at the collisions, but it was the accuracy in their kicking game that allowed them to win the territorial battle. From there, they squeezed, and a tentative Stormers team did all they could just to stay in the contest.

Steyn goaled two penalties before the Stormers produced their best period on attack in the first half. A patient build up culminated in a Schalk Burger-surge for the line, but in placing the ball, the Stormers captain had been guilty of a double movement.

The Bulls continued to control possession and the way they’d boot for territory and then hammer it up to milk a penalty needs to be admired for its execution. Steyn goaled his third penalty in the 21st minute and the Bulls’ disciples celebrated it as a telling blow.

Collectively, the Stormers had two hands on the edge of a precipice with three quarters of the match remaining. A Bull hoof came down strongly on one of those hands in the 24th minute, leaving the Cape boys holding onto the title hopes with just one weak hand.

In the end, it was made to look embarrassingly easy. A lack of communication on defence was smartly exploited by Du Preez, who put Francois Hougaard through a gap. The youngster looked every bit a top-class winger when he side-stepped a flat-footed Joe Pietersen. Steyn’s ensuing conversion completed the mockery, and the pressure continued to mount.

Behind 16-3 and hopelessly outclassed in the kicking game, the Stormers attempted to keep more ball in hand in the second half. It was a tactic that worked to a degree, but some clever breakdown countering by the Bulls usually resulted in a turnover. The home defence was outstanding, but the Bulls’ job was made easier by the fact that the Stormers’ attack grew more desperate with every minute.

The Stormers maintained their grip on the precipice and when the opportunity to climb back up presented itself, they took it. A careless pass by Steyn fell into the clutches of former team-mate Bryan Habana, who sprinted 30m to round off the score. Grant’s conversion reduced the deficit to 16-10, a scoreline that didn’t reflect the Bulls’ dominance.

The Stormers’ brave fightback was short-lived, as the affect of altitude took its toll in the last quarter. Steyn kicked an easy goal in the 62nd minute, and the momentum provided by the Bulls’ bench finished the visitors off. A 78th-minute try by Ricky Januarie only served to flatter the Stormers.

The Bulls have now won three Super Rugby titles, the last two back to back. The win affirms their status as the best provincial outfit in world rugby, and ensures they maintain their mental hold over their southern rivals.

On Saturday the best team won, and the Stormers finished the competition in a very distant second-place.

By Jon Cardinelli, at Orlando Stadium, Soweto