The Vodacom Bulls kept their unbeaten record with a tense 19-18 victory over the Hurricanes at Loftus Versfeld on Friday night.
The win continued their run as the only unbeaten side in this year’s Vodacom Super 14 and extended their winning run at Loftus Versfeld to 15 games, as well as 11 games in the Super 14 in a row.
But while their previous victories were full of flash, with three fifty pointers on the trot, the Bulls had to return to their age-old game plan of tactical kicking and grinding it out with the forwards to get what was a hard earned victory.
There was no bonus point this time around, but at least the satisfaction of leaving Loftus Versfeld now on a four week tour unbeaten, and with their defence a lot better than earlier in the competition.
The Stormers could pass them at the top of the table tomorrow night if they score a bonus point win against the Cheetahs, but the Bulls will still have a game in hand.
On a warm night, the Bulls found their opponents as “angry” as captain Victor Matfield predicted, and were much more motivated than in their other two games in South Africa.
And they had to battle another opponent – referee Steve Walsh – who totally confused both the Bulls and Hurricanes with inconsistent calls, strange decisions and an inability to follow the letter of the law at times.
If Paul Marks was bad, the SANZAR refereeing panel will take a long look at Walsh, who truly did his reputation no favours on the night.
In all the Bulls won the game thanks to the Hurricanes “altitude sickness”, after the visitors looked totally inable to catch an up and under, something the Bulls exploited throughout the match.
The other massive weapon was the maul, which the Hurricanes tried to outfox by not committing tacklers, but again Walsh confused both parties with his decisions which inevitably favoured the Bulls.
Morné Steyn was eventually the difference between the two sides, as he contributed 14 points with the boot, keeping his side in touch as they played catch-up rugby once again before taking the lead in the 67th minute.
Yet with the tour ahead, the Bulls have much to work on, as their handling was terrible at times, and without the normal momentum they built up in past matches, struggled to keep the scoreboard ticking.
Midfielder Wynand Olivier was solidly marked but still managed a good game, but the handling of players such as Pierre Spies, Danie Rossouw and others let them down at crucial times on attack.
Still, with the victory in the bag, the Bulls won’t read too much into the errors, and the fact they managed to claw their way to victory against the flow of play says much about the character of the team.
While they dominated the opening stages of play, the mistakes cancelled any chance of getting on the scoreboard, and they had to watch as the Canes went 12-0 up, scoring from their first two forays into the Bulls 22.
The first came as Karl Lowe was on the end of a movement which swept across the field twice to score from the overlap. The New Zealanders added another to go 12-0 up when Deon Stegmann was penalised at a ruck and Ma’a Nonu tapped quickly to send Jeremy Thrush over.
It took the Bulls exactly a half hour to get onto the board, after winger Gerhard van den Heever was held up over the line and Zane Kirchner eventually stretched over from the next attacking wave to score the Bulls first try.
Steyn reduced the deficit to two, but Ripia made it five again with a penalty on the stroke of half time to lead 15-10.
The second half became even slower with both sides using their packs to try and gain an advantage in a game where the ball rarely went wide.
Ripia added another penalty, but it was cancelled out by Steyn, who brought up 100 points in this year’s competition, the second fastest century in the history of Super rugby.
The Bulls milked another penalty through their maul for Steyn to bring the deficit down to two points again, and Walsh finally lost his patience with the Hurricanes defence shortly afterwards as Victor Vito was dispatched to the sin bin for pulling down the umpteenth maul of the match.
The slow poison was all that was needed as Steyn put the Bulls in the lead and as the clock wound down, the Bulls kept on using the pick and go to wind down the clock, using a full four minutes to the end to stay close to the Hurricanes line and grind out the victory.
[Info from Supersport]