Bulls fire, then fade

RYAN VREDE reports on a 28-22 victory for the Chiefs over the Bulls that leaves the three-time champions with little breathing room if they are to secure a home play-off.

The Bulls were acutely aware of the importance of victory in the context of their conference challenge, but they failed to negotiate a determined second half effort from the Chiefs, after being dominant for the opening half. They will hope the Sharks beat the Stormers in Durban tomorrow and also bank on teams close to them on the overall log dropping points. There is no panic just yet – they’ve finished strongly in recent years after coming off tour – but they cannot afford to drop many more points.

When their execution of their game plan is on point (which it was in the first half) few sides in the tournament could live with the Bulls. However, their inability to sustain their effort through 80 minutes cost them, as did numerous spurned opportunities early in the match.

There are still questions about Francois Hougaard’s kicking game, but tonight it was adequate. His shortcomings in this regard were made up for by Morné Steyn and Zane Kirchner’s competency in this facet of play. Their high kicks and a committed chase had the Chiefs’ back three looking like they were fielding grenades. This is an area the Hamilton franchise must address urgently if they are to be serious title contenders.

Once in the Chiefs’ 22m the Bulls were a mix of efficient and disappointing. Steyn banked two penalties and a drop goal and a try from Bjorn Basson, who profited from poor defence from Lelia Masaga, gave the Bulls a deserved 16-8 lead at the break.

On defence, such was the power and accuracy of their gainline challenge that the Chiefs were made to look toothless. Their primary strike runners – Sonny Bill Williams included – seldom posed a threat. Indeed the Bulls would have been disappointed at the margin of their lead at that point, the Chiefs’ only try coming courtesy of an Akona Ndungane error and their aforementioned wastefulness in good positions lending further weight to this assertion.

Steyn and Aaron Cruden traded penalties after the break, but the Chiefs, galvanised by the injection of quality impact players, gradually found the momentum and synergy they lacked in the first 40. The Bulls remained resolute but their resistance waned going into the final quarter when Cruden found wing Asaeli Tikoirotuma with an inside ball that left him with a clear route to goal. Cruden added the extras for a lead that was short-lived, Steyn edging his side ahead with his fourth penalty of the match.

Then the turning point, and this time another Bulls error inside the Chiefs’ 22m cost them dearly. The hosts turned over possession and ran the ball 70m before earning a lineout. A quick feed caught the Bulls’ defensive line unset, and Williams exploited this, surging through a gap then offloading to put Same Cane clean through. Cruden sunk the conversion and the Bulls just never looked like they had the capacity for a telling rebuttal thereafter.