The Bulls finished their season with a 43-17 bonus-point win against the Cheetahs on Saturday, writes SIMON BORCHARDT.
With the Sharks having beaten the Sunwolves 24 hours earlier to qualify for the Super Rugby quarter-finals at the Bulls' expense, both teams in Bloemfontein were playing for pride.
The visitors came into the game as favourites, having won four more matches than their opponents this season and suffered just one defeat in eight Super Rugby fixtures at the Free State Stadium. And they improved both those records with an emphatic victory that sees them finish the regular season just one log point behind the Sharks.
The Bulls only had 33% of the possession in the first half, yet scored two unanswered tries to lead 18-3 at the break. The scrums were a mess, with both sides conceding penalties. Bulls tighthead prop Marcel van der Merwe was given a torrid time by Charl Marais and replaced early in the second half by Werner Kruger.
As far as the Bulls backs were concerned, Jesse Kriel produced another good performance at fullback that would have given Bok coach Allister Coetzee something to think about, while flyhalf Tiaan Schoeman was successful with six of his eight shots at goal.
The visitors made a solid start to the match with two penalties from Schoeman giving them a 6-0 lead after 14 minutes. The Cheetahs came within inches of scoring a try during that period only to concede a penalty, but they did get on the board midway through the half when Fred Zeilinga was successful with his first shot at goal.
The visitors scored the first try of the game in the 25th minute when they sent the ball wide to wing Travis Ismaiel, who bounced off Clayton Blommetjies and scored in the right-hand corner.
Soon after, the Bulls won a lineout and sent the ball to Renaldo Bothma, who took advantage of some poor defensive work from Uzair Cassiem to burst through a gaping hole. Blommetjies could perhaps have got to the Bulls No 8 before he scored, but didn't even try to make a tackle this time around.
Schoeman's third penalty gave the Bulls a 21-3 lead early in the second half, before Cassiem put Blommetjies over for their first try. After watching the big-screen replay, referee Craig Joubert said he thought the pass had gone forward, but had his mind changed by the TMO.
However, all the hosts' good work was undone soon after when Schoeman kicked into Cheetahs territory and Blommetjies took his time to collect the ball. The fullback was tackled by Ismaiel in the right-hand corner, with Bothma picking up the ball and running over to score his second try. Schoeman kicked the conversion and added a penalty to put his side 31-10 ahead with 20 minutes to go.
Ismaiel then crossed for his second try, after some powerful running by Jason Jenkins in the buildup, with the Cheetahs getting their second try in the 75th minute. Raymond Rhule did well to charge down Francois Brummer's clearance kick and Carl Wegner barged his way past several defenders to score.
But the Bulls had the final say when Jamba Ulengo scored their bonus-point try in the last play of the game after Tian Meyer kicked the ball straight into the winger's hands.
Cheetahs – Tries: Clayton Blommetjies, Henco Venter. Conversions: Fred Zeilinga, George Whitehead. Penalty: Zeilinga.
Bulls – Tries: Travis Ismaiel (2), Renaldo Bothma (2), Jamba Ulengo. Conversions: Tian Schoeman (2), Francois Brummer. Penalties: Schoeman (4).
Cheetahs – Clayton Blommetjies, 14 Sergeal Petersen, 13 William van der Spuy, 12 Michael van der Spuy, 11 Raymond Rhule, 10 Fred Zeilinga, 9 Shaun Venter, 8 Paul Schoeman, 7 Oupa Mohoje (c), 6 Uzair Cassiem, 5 Francois Uys, 4 Armandt Koster, 3 Maks van Dyk, 2 Torsten van Jaarsveld, 1 Charles Marais.
Subs: 16 Joseph Dweba, 17 Ox Nche, 18 Johan Coetzee, 19 Reniel Hugo, 20 Carl Wegner, 21 Tian Meyer, 22 George Whitehead, 23 Ryno Benjamin.
Bulls – 15 Jesse Kriel, 14 Travis Ismaiel, 13 Burger Odendaal, 12 Dries Swanepoel, 11 Jamba Ulengo, 10 Tian Schoeman, 9 Piet van Zyl, 8 Renaldo Bothma, 7 Jannes Kirsten, 6 Lappies Labuschagne, 5 Marvin Orie, 4 Jason Jenkins, 3 Marcel van der Merwe, 2 Adriaan Strauss (c), 1 Pierre Schoeman.
Subs: 16 Bandise Maku, 17 Nqoba Mxoli, 18 Werner Kruger, 19 Grant Hattingh, 20 Arno Botha, 21 Rudy Paige, 22 Francois Brummer, 23 SP Marais.
Photo: Johan Pretorius/Gallo Images