The Bulls edged the Stormers 17-13 in Pretoria on Saturday to move to the top of the Africa 1 conference. JON CARDINELLI reports.
The performance against the Stormers at Loftus Versfeld was a throwback to the brand of rugby played by the great Bulls side of the late 2000s. On Saturday, the Bulls’ perfect blend of power and precision yielded an important and timely victory. The race for the Africa 1 title remains wide open.
It was some statement after a testing three-week tour in Australia. Following a convincing win against the Force in Perth, the Bulls were outplayed in the subsequent clashes with the Brumbies and Waratahs. On the basis of those performances and results, few would have backed them to beat the Africa 1 conference favourites in round 13.
But at the end of a typically brutal north-south derby at Loftus, the Bulls emerged as worthy victors. The result marks the Bulls’ first win against the Stormers since 2013, and also ensures that their unbeaten home record for the season remains intact.
The Bulls’ victory was built on solid defence as well as a pinpoint kicking game. They dominated the scrums and competed well against the much-vaunted Stormers lineout. They won the breakdowns and collisions, and made the bulk of their scoring chances count.
While they spent a great deal of time on defence, they were rarely on the back foot. The Stormers enjoyed a whopping 80% of the possession in the first half, but struggled to put a dent into the Bulls’ defence.
Francois Brummer kicked two penalties to cancel out the two kicked by his opposite number, Jean-Luc du Plessis. The scoreboard read 6-6 at half-time, but it was the Bulls who were on top.
The Bulls persisted with their pragmatic tactics in the second stanza. They continued to kick on the Stormers back three, and continued to win the ball back in the air.
A well-weighted chip-kick by Jan Serfontein found space, and the Bulls won the race to the loose ball. SP Marais delivered the final pass to Piet van Zyl, who crashed over for a game-shaping try.
Brummer missed the ensuing conversion attempt, but enjoyed another scoring opportunity in the 52nd minute. Brummer's penalty goal stretched the Bulls’ lead to eight points, which was substantial given the nature of the contest.
The Bulls applied a lot of pressure at the scrum, with Marcel van der Merwe winning his battle against loosehead Oli Kebble. The young Bulls lock pairing of Jason Jenkins and RG Snyman, as well as Grant Hattingh later in the game, ensured that Pieter-Steph du Toit and Eben Etzebeth didn’t have everything their own way at the lineout.
On several occasions, the Bulls managed to sack the Stormers before the visitors could set the rolling maul. And then, late in the contest, Hattingh pilfered a ball off the Stormers' feed to deny the Cape side one final chance to launch an attack.
But perhaps the best aspect of the Bulls’ performance was their showing at the breakdown. They were dominant in contact, and placed the Stormers halfbacks under a lot of pressure at the rucks. Scrumhalf Nic Groom made a number of errors in this match. Most of those were a direct result of the pressure applied by the Bulls loose forwards at the breakdown.
The Stormers got themselves back into the game when Damian de Allende scored under the posts in the 68th minute. The subsequent conversion saw the visitors trailing by a single point.
And yet it was the Bulls who dominated in the final minutes. Their game management during this period was excellent.
The forwards set the platform for replacement flyhalf Tian Schoeman to slot a drop goal in the 76th minute and increase the hosts' lead to four points. The Bulls continued to kick on the Stormers backs and apply the pressure. When Cheslin Kolbe knocked on in the 79th minute, the game was effectively over.
On the basis of their performance, one would have to say that the Bulls deserved to win. By contrast, the Springbok-laden Stormers side disappointed in the forward exchanges and employed the wrong tactics for this sort of contest.
Bulls – Try: Piet van Zyl. Penalties: Francois Brummer (3). Drop goal: Tian Schoeman.
Stormers – Try: Damian de Allende. Conversion: Jean-Luc du Plessis. Penalties: Du Plessis (2).
Bulls – 15 SP Marais, 14 Jamba Ulengo, 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 Jan Serfontein, 11 Travis Ismaiel, 10 Francois Brummer, 9 Piet van Zyl, 8 Arno Botha, 7 Jannes Kirsten, 6 Lappies Labuschagne, 5 RG Snyman, 4 Jason Jenkins, 3 Marcel van der Merwe, 2 Adriaan Strauss (c), 1 Lizo Gqoboka.
Subs: 16 Jaco Visagie, 17 Trevor Nyakane, 18 Pierre Schoeman, 19 Grant Hattingh, 20 Deon Stegmann, 21 Rudy Paige, 22 Tian Schoeman, 23 Dries Swanepoel.
Stormers – 15 Cheslin Kolbe, 14 Kobus van Wyk, 13 Johnny Kotze, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Leolin Zas, 10 Jean-Luc du Plessis, 9 Nic Groom, 8 Schalk Burger, 7 Siya Kolisi, 6 Nizaam Carr, 5 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Frans Malherbe (c), 2 Bongi Mbonambi 1 Oli Kebble.
Subs: 16 Scarra Ntubeni, 17 Alistair Vermaak, 18 Vincent Koch, 19 Rynhardt Elstadt, 20 Sikhumbuzo Notshe, 21 Louis Schreuder, 22 Brandon Thomson, 23 Huw Jones.
Photo: Anne Laing/HSM Images