The Bulls' play-off hopes suffered a potentially mortal blow when they lost 32-21 to the Lions at Ellis Park on Saturday, writes SIMON BORCHARDT.
A bonus-point win would have taken the Bulls to fifth on the combined log. Instead, they go into the June break in ninth position, having played one more game than the Highlanders, Force and Chiefs. While they could still sneak into the play-offs if they beat the Stormers (away) and Rebels (home), they'll also need other results to go their way.
The Lions came into this Gauteng derby rooted to the bottom of the combined log, having suffered seven consecutive defeats. The Bulls, meanwhile, were on a three-match winning streak and had won their last 10 Super Rugby matches against the Lions.
But all that counted for nothing as a fired-up Lions team took advantage of a Bulls side that made too many handling errors, slipped 24 tackles, and missed the calming influence of Victor Matfield, who was rested.
The Lions started the match well. Marnitz Boshoff kicked a drop goal after they had attacked straight from the kick-off and then slotted two penalties for a 9-0 lead. The Lions showed an early willingness to run from deep, with Coenie van Wyk beating five Bulls defenders before giving away possession.
The visitors had an error-ridden first quarter, with Jacques Louis-Potgieter missing his first shot at goal and three promising attacks ending with knock-ons. The last one came when Akona Ndungane bounced off Courtnall Skosan and then gave a pop pass in the tackle to Jürgen Visser, who only had to catch the ball and fall over the line.
The Bulls came close again in the 23rd minute, following a botched Lions lineout. Francois Hougaard put Marcel van der Merwe into a gap and the tighthead prop stormed to within a couple metres of the tryline. They then went wide to JJ Engelbrecht, who should have passed to Ndungane next to him to make the overlap count. But the midfielder's skip pass to Bjorn Basson gave Boshoff time to get across and force the winger into touch just before he grounded the ball.
Two Potgieter penalties gave the Bulls something to show for their first-half efforts and the flyhalf kicked another to level the scores early in the second half. But Grant Hattingh failed to collect the re-start, with the ball coming back to Alwyn Hollenbach, who threw a dummy and scored a try that Boshoff converted.
That gave the Lions new life and when Boshoff kicked his second drop goal and another penalty they led 22-9 after 58 minutes.
The hosts then struck another blow when Elton Jantjies broke into the Bulls half and passed inside to Stokkies Hanekom. After a weaving run, the outside centre was brought down just short of the tryline, but popped the ball up to Warwick Tecklenburg, who scored.
The Bulls hit back with two tries in quick succession, to William Small-Smith and Jacques du Plessis, that made it 29-21 with five minutes to go. Crucially, though, Potgieter missed the first conversion, a simple attempt by his standards, which meant the Bulls had to score twice.
But they never got close again, and Boshoff's last-minute penalty sealed the win for the Lions.
Lions – Tries: Alwyn Hollenbach, Warwick Tecklenburg. Conversions: Marnitz Boshoff (2). Penalties: Boshoff (4). Drop goals: Boshoff (2).
Bulls – Tries: William Small-Smith, Jacques du Plessis. Conversion: Jacques-Louis Potgieter. Penalties: Potgieter (3).
Lions – 15 Coenie van Wyk, 14 Courtnall Skosan, 13 Stokkies Hanekom, 12 Alwyn Hollenbach, 11 Chrysander Botha, 10 Marnitz Boshoff, 9 Ross Cronjé, 8 Warren Whiteley (c), 7 Warwick Tecklenburg, 6 Jaco Kriel, 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Rudi Mathee, 3 Julian Redelinghuys, 2 Robbie Coetzee, 1 Schalk van der Merwe.
Subs: 16 Armand van der Merwe, 17 Corné Fourie, 18 Ruan Dreyer, 19 Willie Britz, 20 Derick Minnie, 21 Faf de Klerk, 22 Elton Jantjies, 23 Deon van Rensburg.
Bulls – 15 Jürgen Visser, 14 Akona Ndungane, 13 JJ Engelbrecht, 12 Jan Serfontein, 11 Bjorn Basson, 10 Jacques-Louis Potgieter, 9 Francois Hougaard, 8 Jacques Engelbrecht, 7 Jacques du Plessis, 6 Jono Ross, 5 Grant Hattingh, 4 Flip van der Merwe (c), 3 Marcel van der Merwe, 2 Callie Visagie, 1 Dean Greyling.
Subs: 16 Bongi Mbonambi, 17 Werner Kruger, 18 Morné Mellett, 19 Paul Willemse, 20 Wimpie van der Walt, 21 Piet van Zyl, 22 Louis Fouché, 23 William Small-Smith.
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Both sides scored two tries, with Boshoff's boot proving to be the difference. The flyhalf kicked two penalties, two drop goals and four penalties for a personal haul of 22 points.
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Photo: Anne Laing/HSM Images