RYAN VREDE watched a fine attacking performance from the Bulls undermined by a poor defensive one in their 41-35 victory over the Rebels.
From a Bulls perspective this match should be remembered less for the five tries they scored and more for the awful defensive display that allowed the lowly Rebels to run in five of their own. They are undoubtedly South Africa’s best attacking force but if their defensive struggles continue they won’t mount a serious title challenge. A better side would have scored more often and indeed beaten them on the strength of their defensive performance tonight.
They had secured a four-try bonus point by half-time but, tellingly, had allowed the Rebels to do the same. Their gainline fight was weak, allowing the Rebels to consistently run at an unset defensive line. They scored almost every time they entered the Bulls’ red zone and the ease with which they did so should be deeply concerning.
Only a Morne Steyn penalty separated the sides at half-time (31-28). The Springboks have recruited Bulls defence coach John McFarland, who has built a reputation for forging his sides into formidable defensive units. But he’ll have a significant amount of work to do in the weeks ahead. This was expected to be their easiest assignment defensively, with the Waratahs, Chiefs and Highlanders in wait.
They will, however, draw confidence from their potency on attack. Their primary strike runners brutally exposed the Rebels’ own defensive vulnerabilities, bossing the tackle fight, which allowed them to control the flow and tempo of the match when they were in possession.
There will also be renewed optimism about Morne Steyn’s match-winning potential as a goal-kicker. The Springbok flyhalf has been inconsistent with his kicking to date, but tonight his rhythm seemed to have returned, evident by him landing a clutch of touchline conversions.
The match settled down in the second half then exploded into life going into the final quarter. When JJ Engelbrecht touched down and Steyn banked his fifth conversion of the evening you thought the Bulls would close the game out. But just three minutes later the Rebels cut their line once more in a move that culminated in Cooper Vuna grabbing his second try of the match. Kurtley Beale had matched Steyn with the boot and kicked the extras to set up a tense final 10 minutes with the Rebels trailing by three.
Steyn sunk a penalty with eight to play and the Bulls did enough to hold but they will be acutely aware of fundamental flaws that need to be addressed.