The Vodacom Bulls returned to the top of the SA conference with a thrilling 35-33 bonus-point win over the Lions at Loftus. BRENTON CHELIN reports.
In the end there were eight tries, spread evenly between the two sides, who served up a thrilling contest that ebbed and flowed right until the final minute.
The Lions had come into Saturday's match on the back of five consecutive wins, but were unable to end their search for a first win at Loftus, despite a spirited second-half display.
The Bulls dominated the first half and deserved the 25-13 lead they held after the first stanza. They dominated the collisions at the gainline and the breakdown, while the Lions made numerous mistakes in the face of some vociferous defence.
Piet van Zyl got the Bulls off to a superb start, as some quick-thinking allowed him to go over from close range in the fifth minute. He'd have his second a few minutes later, although the Lions would have reason to feel aggrieved after what looked to be a forward pass from Arno Botha in the buildup.
It did not take long for the Lions to respond, with the men from Johannesburg scoring a fine try of their own. Ruan Combrinck found a gaping hole in the Bulls midfield and burst downfield before finding Faf de Klerk, who showed great hands at full pace to gather and race clear to score.
However, that try came against the run of play and order was restored as Handré Pollard extended the Bulls' lead with two penalties. Elton Jantjies reduced the deficit but the Bulls responded with another try from JJ Engelbrecht, who showed an impressive turn of pace to round Combrinck and go in for a try.
Another Jantjies penalty gave the Lions hope heading into the break, as they looked to fight their way back into the match.
And it was some fightback. The Lions used their ascendancy at scrum time to manoeuvre a way back into the match. They dominated the third quarter of the match, overturning a 12-point half-time deficit to lead 26-25 with 20 minutes remaining.
However, Johan Ackermann's decision to replace his starting front row handed the impetus back to the Bulls, who regained their composure along with the lead.
It was a Bulls replacement, Pierre Spies, who would get the match-defining try. His quick tap caught the Lions defence napping, and he powered his way over with four Lions defenders on his back.
Pollard added another penalty to extend the Bulls' lead and despite a well-deserved try for Jaco Kriel, the Lions simply weren't able to claw their way back into the lead again.
Bulls – Tries: Piet van Zyl (2), JJ Engelbrecht, Pierre Spies. Conversions: Handré Pollard (3). Penalties: Pollard (3).
Lions – Tries: Faf de Klerk, Jacques van Rooyen, Jaco Kriel. Conversions: Elton Jantjies (3). Penalties: Jantjies (4).
Bulls – 15 Jesse Kriel, 14 Francois Hougaard, 13 JJ Engelbrecht, 12 Jan Serfontein, 11 Bjorn Basson, 10 Handré Pollard, 9 Piet van Zyl, 8 Arno Botha, 7 Jacques du Plessis, 6 Lappies Labuschagne, 5 Victor Matfield (c), 4 Flip van der Merwe, 3 Marcel van der Merwe, 2 Adriaan Strauss, 1 Trevor Nyakane.
Subs: 16 Callie Visagie, 16 Morné Mellett, 17 Andrew Beerwinkel, 18 Grant Hattingh, 19 Pierre Spies, 20 Tian Schoeman, 21 Burger Odendaal, 22 Jurgen Visser.
Lions – 15 Marnitz Boshoff, 14 Ruan Combrinck, 13 Harold Vorster, 12 Howard Mnisi, 11 Andries Coetzee, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Faf de Klerk, 8 Warren Whiteley (c), 7 Warwick Tecklenburg, 6 Jaco Kriel, 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Andries Ferreira, 3 Julian Redelinghuys, 2 Armand van der Merwe, 1 Jacques van Rooyen.
Subs: 16 Mark Pretorius, 17.Corné Fourie, 18 Ruan Dreyer, 19 MB Lusaseni, 20 Robert Kruger, 21 Ross Cronje, 22 Alwyn Hollenbach, 23 Courtnall Skosan.
Photo: Anne Laing/HSM Images