The Blues turned in an outstanding physical performance to defeat the Vodacom Bulls 23-18 in Auckland on Friday. JON CARDINELLI reports.
The Bulls have now lost eight successive games in Australasia. The most recent result is especially damaging to their 2015 campaign, as they have blown a big chance to put some distance between themselves and the Stormers at the top of the South African conference.
The Blues are the worst side in the New Zealand division, and the Bulls were rightly labelled as pre-match favourites. Failure to live up to that billing could be devastating to the Bulls' cause, as their tour will only get harder from here. They will play the Chiefs in Hamilton next week.
The Bulls were fortunate to come away with a losing bonus point in Auckland. While their lineouts and scrums were outstanding, their efforts at the gainline and breakdowns lacked grunt and precision. Their composure in pressure situations also left a lot to be desired, and if they had played a better side than the basement-dwelling Blues, they may have been punished to a greater degree.
Victor Matfield marshalled the lineout expertly, and the Bulls succeeded in applying the pressure via this set piece in the early stages. Significantly, the Blues were able to thwart the Bulls at the crucial moment. It was a frustrating period for the Bulls, as the Blues managed to survive these assaults without conceding the pushover try.
Handré Pollard kicked two penalty goals during this period, which wasn't a great return for all of the Bulls' possession and territorial dominance. While the visitors were excellent at the set pieces, they battled at the restarts. The Blues managed to win back possession and then score on each visit to the Bulls' 22.
The Blues absorbed a lot of pressure initially, and then used that aggressive defence to create the game's first try. The Bulls were under the pump on their own tryline, and Pollard was forced onto his left boot. The poor kick landed in the hands of Lolagi Visinia, who proceeded to punch through the fractured Bulls defence and score.
Pollard crafted a great try at the other end when he beat an advancing Blues defence and then found Serfontein with a neat offload. The Springbok centre showed good power to finish, and Pollard converted. Unfortunately for the visitors, they would concede more points thereafter, and went to the break trailing 16-13.
A powerful scrum by the Bulls set the platform for Serfontein's second try, and the visitors moved into an 18-16 lead. However, that blow was not enough to discourage the Blues, who continued to throw themselves into contact.
The hosts pressured the Bulls' tryline for some time, and eventually earned some reward through a George Moala try. Suddenly the Blues were out to a 23-18 lead with 13 minutes remaining.
The Bulls focused on their strengths at the scrums and lineouts in those final minutes. They milked several penalties and advanced to the Blues' half of the field.
But the Blues' strengths on defence would ultimately trump those of the Bulls. The Blues absorbed the pressure, and then won the breakdown penalty that killed all of the Bulls' momentum, as well as their last chance of snatching a win.
Blues – Tries: Jan Serfontein (2). Conversion: Handré Pollard. Penalties: Pollard (2).
Bulls – Tries: Lolagi Visina, George Moala. Conversions: Ihaia West (2). Penalties: West (3).
Blues – 15 Lolagi Visinia, 14 Ben Lam, 13 Francis Saili, 12 George Moala, 11 Melani Nanai, 10 Ihaia West, 9 Jamison Gibson-Park, 8 Steven Luatua (c), 7 Brendon O'Connor, 6 Akira Ioane, 5 Josh Bekhuis, 4 Culum Retallick, 3 Charlie Faumuina, 2 James Parsons, 1 Tony Woodcock.
Subs: 16 Keven Mealamu, 17 Ofa Tu'ungafasi, 18 Sam Pratley, 19 Will Lloyd, 20 Blake Gibson, 21 Jimmy Cowan/, 22 Simon Hickey, 23 Matt Vaega.
Bulls – 15 Jesse Kriel, 14 Francois Hougaard, 13 JJ Engelbrecht, 12 Jan Serfontein, 11 Bjorn Basson, 10 Handré Pollard, 9 Rudy Paige, 8 Pierre Spies (c), 7 Arno Botha, 6 Lappies Labuschagne, 5 Victor Matfield, 4 Flip van de Merwe, 3 Marcel van der Merwe, 2 Adriaan Strauss, 1 Trevor Nyakane.
Subs: 16 Callie Visagie, 17 Dean Greyling, 18 Werner Kruger, 19 Jacques du Plessis, 20 Deon Stegmann, 21 Burger Odendaal, 22 Jacques-Louis Potgieter, 23 Travis Ismaiel.
Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images