RYAN VREDE watched the Highlanders snap the Bulls’ 18-match hot streak at Loftus, winning 35-28 off the back of an excellent all-round attacking performance and desperate defence.
The Hurricanes were the last side to win in Pretoria, way back in April 2008. Tonight the Landers replicated that result, schooling the defending champions across the park and sustaining their effort through 80 minutes, something touring teams rarely manage.
The Bulls will bemoan an ordinary refereeing performance from Stuart Dickinson, particularly at the breakdown, but they would be better advised to look at their flat performance as the reason for this defeat. Senior Springboks routinely fell off tackles like they were schoolboys, and they were rudderless on attack.
From the outset it was obvious that the Landers were determined to scrap, spoil, sprint and bash their way to victory. They were smart and accurate, if not always legal, in how they stifled the Bulls at the collisions and breakdown, resulting in the hosts never getting the momentum they rely on to deplete the defensive line.
But the outstanding feature of their performance was how they bullied the Bulls at the tackle point on attack, and this allowed them to play a high-tempo, expansive game that ultimately got them an unexpected result. It’s a tactic employed often against the Bulls, and one based on the belief that their tight forwards will tire, and as a result be defensively vulnerable. Few teams have succeeded, but the Landers explored depths of their resolve to record a win they’ll speak about for years to come.
They led 11-6 at the break thanks to an early Adam Thomson try and two Robbie Robinson penalties. Morne Steyn kept the Bulls in touch by kicking two of his own.
The Landers had benefited from ordinary tackling by the Bulls, as well as an uncharacteristically poor chase when they kicked downfield. This combined with their impotency at ruck time and the sin binning of Deon Stegmann for a ruck infringement just before half-time compounded their woes.
It got worse just after the restart when the Landers exploited their numbers advantage to score through Josh Bekhuis. Tony Brown, on for Robinson, converted, and five minutes later banked another two points, topping up Kade Poki’s try which featured diabolical defence.
At 25-9 (Steyn kicked a penalty) the Bulls needed to exhibit infinitely more tactical intelligence, appreciation for possession, defensive steel and their renowned character to drag themselves back into the contest.
They stirred briefly, Flip van der Merwe crashing over from a set piece. Steyn added the extras and the mood lifted in expectation of an epic final quarter. Brown made it a 12-point game, Fourie du Preez’s sniping break for the corner kept the dream alive, but Poki landed the killer blow with 10 minutes remaining, rounding off a move he was allowed to start 50m back thanks to yet more incompetent defence.
A late converted try from Bjorn Basson set up chance of a draw, but the Bulls weren’t able to add to their collection of great escapes. The honours belonged to the New Zealanders, and rightly so.