The Bulls will face the Crusaders in the play-offs after a bonus-point 37-20 victory over the Lions at Loftus.
The Bulls have beaten the Crusaders regularly in recent years. However, all of those victories have come at home. This will be the most daunting of tasks, facing the seven-time champions on their home patch and likely to have something resembling their full-strength side available.
The Bulls made hard work of their progression, initially looking like they’d be comfortable winners, then surrendering their lead just before break.
Powerful and accurate defence was a hallmark of the Bulls’ championship winning sides, but this one lacks that quality. Their tackle fight was weak for the first 40 minutes and allowed the Lions to play the expansive game they prefer. The Saders won’t be as generous as the Lions were this evening.
Furthermore, on attack the Bulls veered from their kick-chase approach, opting to attack from deep more than they have at most stages in their campaign. They would have been better served in the early exchanges by turning the Lions with tactical probes and inviting them to attack from deep. However, they remedied those flaws after the break to blow away their Gauteng neighbours.
Elton Jantjies and Morne Steyn traded penalties to get the contest going, but the Lions flyhalf erred when he threw an intercept pass to Akona Ndungane who sprinted clear. Steyn converted and was soon banked another after Bjorn Basson profited from a sniping break from Francois Hougaard, who drew two defenders before dishing off to the winger.
But the Lions rallied well, capitalising on the Bulls’ charitable defence to score twice – Michael Bondisio breaking from a 5m scrum and Josh Strauss crashing over after a powerful rolling maul. Jantjies’ touchline conversion ended the half with the scores tied at 20-20.
But the Bulls returned patently determined to blunt the Lions at the gainline, and succeeded. This allowed their defensive line to set and aided their task considerably. The Lions were rendered impotent, never threatening for the remainder of the match.
The Bulls also elevated to a new level of physicality in their carries, allowing them to control the tempo and flow of the game. Hougaard, who was excellent tonight, showed great awareness to spot an unguarded ruck fringe and dart in on goal from 25m out. Jacques Potgieter gained reward for an industrious performance when he barged over from close range shortly thereafter.
The Bulls closed out the game well to set up a match they will be underdogs in. They have never lamented the loss of a clutch of vastly experienced players. But I imagine they’d give a lot to have some of those boys on the plane to New Zealand.