The Bulls guaranteed themselves a home Super 14 semi-final on Friday with an epic 40-35 win over the Crusaders in a superb game of rugby.
The visitors competed all the way, scoring four tries and grabbing two bonus points that have stuck a huge spanner in the works of semi-final qualification – it is not inconceivable these two could meet again in a fortnight’s time.
In a compatition which has kept all onlookers and protagonists on the edge of their seat all the way through, this game was another notch upwards to what looks as though it could be the finest Super Rugby finale yet.
That will be little consolation to the Crusaders who played more of the rugby and scored more tries but just could not find a way to neutralise the boot of Morne Steyn, nor realise that the game is not over in Pretoria until minute 81.
You don’t mess with the locals up here unless you are very clever or very stupid. Ben Franks found that out after just two minutes, conceding a penalty by lifting Danie Roussouw – the local darling of the evening playing his 100th match who had a birthday the day before – and dumping him onto the ground.
Referee Marius Jonker promptly reversed the penalty against the Bulls on his assistant’s – and 40,000 Bulls fans’ – advice and Morne Steyn opened the scoring with a 50m penalty.
That didn’t staunch the visitors’ aggression and they launched several meaningful wide attacks early on. Breathless stuff, which was bound to tell later in the rarified air. It had to count. It did.
From turnover ball it went wide to a pod of forwards on the right, with Ti’i Paulo stepping Roussouw and fending off Victor Matfield before offloading to Brad Thorn for a magnificent 60m try. Carter’s touchline conversion was every bit as impressive. Game on!
Steyn knocked a second penalty over from 50m almost nonchalantly as the Crusaders infringed at a scrum after 15 minutes.
The Crusaders replied in the same way they had Steyn’s first penalty though. After a busting run by Thorn, Carter – whose form has been subject of scrutiny the past fortnight – rolled back the years with a shummy and go and deftly-weighted inside pass to Andy Ellis for the second try under the posts.
Roussouw had already headlocked Ellis a few minutes before and at the restart he once again swung a ludicrous arm at Kieran Read, seeing yellow for his efforts. That was after 20 minutes in which the Crusaders had enjoyed three quarters of the possession.
The only Bull not feeling the pressure was Steyn, who launched a 50m drop goal for good measure on 22 minutes. Struggling for defence the Bulls may have been, but they were getting points any time they got over the halfway line.
Sean Maitland was denied a third Crusaders try by a brilliant tackle from Olivier as the visitors once again swept forward, but on 27 minutes he made no mistake, after Zac Guildford had created the extra man in the line and the overlap for Maitland to canter to the corner.
But again, the Bulls landed a sucker punch. Turnover ball from Ben Franks – he really should have given it to Carter – was dlipped out to Francois Hougaard and the youngster sped home for a score. 19-14 to the Crusaders after a half hour and the pace of the game had not let up for a moment.
Steyn missed the conversion and a penalty, but landed one more before the break as the Crusaders were pinged at a scrum – an occurrence that was a feature of the first half, much to the visitors’ irritation.
But that was nothing compared to their irritation at what happened next, as first Gary Botha then Roussouw slipped tackles before the latter offloaded to Matfield for the run home. It was forward movement eerily similar to that for the Crusaders’ first try, a testament to an extraordinary half of rugby.
The second half started a little less frantically, but with no let-up in the action. The Crusaders landed the first blow, with Paulo stretching to dot down under the posts. Carter converted to give his side the lead at 26-24.
The entry of Bakkies Botha for the final 25 minutes was greeted with such hysteria that referee Jonker probably gave the Bulls a penalty just to calm everyone down. He said it was for an infringement by Richie McCaw at a line-out, but neutrals remain sceptical. Steyn landed it to make the score 27-26 in favour of the home side.
Back came the Crusaders, with McCaw’s influence growing and growing. Carter dropped a goal – nothing like giving the home side a taste of their own medicine – to give the Crusaders the lead back.
It nearly went straight back to the Bulls, as Gerhard van den Heever powered over the line but Guildford did magnificently to get his body under the ball and prevent the score. Moments later, Steyn did give the Bulls the lead back from the tee, making it 30-29.
As fatigue set in, so the teams became less dynamic. The Bulls made a mess of a couple of goal-line situations they’d normally be expected to score, while the Crusaders just could not find their rhythm at the set piece. With ten minutes to go it made for an evermore cagey affair, balanced precariously and with the next try almost guaranteed victory.
With seven minutes to go, the Bulls were once again down to 14 men, with Gerhard van den Heever sent to the bin for a tip tackle. Carter landed the pressure penalty from a difficult angle. Cometh the hour. 32-30 to the visitors.
Cometh the hour indeed. Not two minutes later, Steyn stepped back and from 40 metres launched a majestic drop goal to give the Bulls the lead back. 33-32 to the Bulls.
Back came the Crusaders with a tap penalty and Bees Roux failed to heed the warnings of referee Jonker to let Thomas Waldrom go in a tackle. Carter landed the game’s longest kick, under the most intense pressure, to give the Crusaders the lead at 35-33 with five to go.
The Bulls attacked one more time. They won a scrum ten metres out. Steyn dropped back into the pocket. The scrum was good. The ball came back, Steyn fired it. It was charged down. Game over?
Never. One final attack from the loose ball, Bandise Maku saw a gap on the left. His pop pass was flapped at by a red hand and knocked back into Hougaard’s hands and the youngster scurried over for his second. A grandstand finale to a grand game of rugby.
Man of the match: Every single one of them. One of the finest games of all time, never mind this year.
For the Bulls:
Tries: Hougaard 2, Matfield
Cons: Steyn 2
Pens: Steyn 5
Drop goals: Steyn 2
For the Crusaders:
Tries: Thorn, Ellis, Maitland, Paulo
Cons: Carter 3
Pens: Carter 2
Drop goal: Carter
Bulls: 15 Zane Kirchner, 14 Gerhard van den Heever, 13 Jacques-Louis Potgieter, 12 Wynand Olivier, 11 Francois Hougaard, 10 Morné Steyn, 9 Fourie du Preez, 8 Pierre Spies, 7 Dewald Potgieter, 6 Deon Stegmann, 5 Victor Matfield (c), 4 Danie Rossouw, 3 Werner Kruger, 2 Gary Botha, 1 Gurthrö Steenkamp.
Replacements: 16 Bandise Maku, 17 Bees Roux, 18 Bakkies Botha, 19 Derick Kuün, 20 Jaco van der Westhuyzen, 21 Stephan Dippenaar, 22 Pedrie Wannenburg.
Crusaders: 15 Colin Slade, 14 Sean Maitland, 13 Robbie Fruean, 12 Dan Bowden, 11 Zac Guildford, 10 Dan Carter, 9 Andy Ellis, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Richie McCaw (c), 6 George Whitelock, 5 Chris Jack, 4 Brad Thorn, 3 Ben Franks, 2 Ti’i Paulo, 1 Wyatt Crockett.
Replacements:16 Dan Perrin, 17 Owen Franks, 18 Sam Whitelock, 19 Thomas Waldrom, 20 Kahn Fotuali’i, 21 Tim Bateman, 22 Jared Payne.
Referee: Marius Jonker (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Jaco Peyper (South Africa), Christie du Preez (South Africa)
TMO: Shaun Veldsman (South Africa)
[Story credited to Planet Rugby]