The Toyota Free State Cheetahs produced a superb show of defence and sustained attack to kill off any hopes the Vodacom Blue Bulls had of making the Absa Currie Cup semifinals with a well-earned 22-7 victory in Bloemfontein on Saturday.
The Bulls arrived in Bloem needing to win with a bonus point for four tries and also needed to deny the Cheetahs a bonus point to leapfrog them in the log point standings. Instead of showcasing a youthful determination, they were taught a rugby lesson by a Cheetahs side clearly confident in its own abilities and able to withstand whatever the Bulls attack threw at them.
To be honest, it wasn’t much of a sustained attack as the Bulls were too one-dimensional, too predictable and made far too many errors to be taken seriously in a contest that ended up being very one-sided indeed.
The Cheetahs were able to open up an early 10 point lead, then absorb everything the Bulls had on attack, not flinching as they manhandled the young Bulls forwards at the breakdown and simply smothered them on defence.
The Bulls' ploy to use captain Jono Ross as openside flanker was a real failure, as they lost the breakdown battle badly and Ross was pinged several times for side entry and was off the pace on the night.
That said, their scrums and lineouts were hardly better and even though they had a backline that looked full of running, they hardly got much good ball to play with, making things easier for the Cheetahs defence to cope with them.
Before we harp on the failings of the Bulls attack, credit must go to the Cheetahs as they clearly went out with a plan and it worked wonderfully, giving them a massive lift of confidence ahead of the playoff games next week.
Their workrate at the breakdown was superb, with Coenie Oosthuizen, Adriaan Strauss, Phillip van der Walt and Boom Prinsloo all putting in the hard yards and getting the reward.
The Bulls, however, will have to seriously consider whether they laid the seeds of their own demise by offering poor contracts to a number of players – including the likes of Jacques and Dewald Potgieter, Willie Wepener and Jano Vermaak that caused them to leave the Pretoria union and allow a young and inexperienced side to contest the season.
Either way, it didn’t help them on the night as Pine Pienaar’s charges ended the season with a disappointing three wins from 10 games, hardly the return their fans would have wanted.
Elgar Watts opened up the lead as he spotted a gap early on, beating Paul Willemse on the outside to sprint in for the easiest of tries, then followed the conversion with a penalty to put his side up 10-0 early on.
The Bulls turned down several penalties in front of the posts but were thwarted every time as they failed to set up a decent maul, or lost the ball in contact at crucial stages when they needed to keep the momentum flowing. Their ball runners were poor and hardly made it across the gain line and found themselves down to 14 men when Rudy Paige was yellow carded on the half hour for holding onto the ball and preventing a quick tap.
Despite the numerical problem, they clawed their way onto the scoreboard just before halftime as Marcel van der Merwe went over from close range.
The Bulls tried valiantly in the second half but paid for their mistakes as Jan Serfontein’s chip was charged down and intercepted by Watts, who ran 50 metres to score.
With time running out it was clear that their season was at an end, they watched as Adriaan Strauss beat JJ Engelbrecht as he toed the ball ahead and won the race against the midfielder in the 78th minute, to rub salt in the Bulls wounds.
The Cheetahs in this form will back themselves against whoever they face next week and will be happy they are still in the competition.
As for the Bulls, the less said about this season the better. Especially as many of their own failings could have been prevented.
Toyota Free State Cheetahs - Tries: Robert Ebersohn, Elgar Watts, Adriaan Strauss; Conversions: Elgar Watts(2); Penalty: Watts .
Vodacom Blue Bulls - Try: Marcell van der Merwe; Conversion: Handre