The Vodacom Blue Bulls produced a scintillating display of controlled rugby as they powered to a 50-29 victory over the MTN Golden Lions at Coca-Cola Park to book their place in the Absa Currie Cup semifinals.
The win means the Blue Bulls leapfrog Griquas and Cheetahs to take the fourth spot, and condemn the Cheetahs to play a promotion-relegation game against the EP Kings on Friday night in Bloemfontein.
The Blue Bulls will now head to Durban on Saturday to face the Sharks, while the Lions – who finished second despite the loss – will host Western Province in Johannesburg in the other semifinal.
But on a night where winning was the only option, the Blue Bulls had to overcome an early setback and went down 13-0 before clawing their way back into the game and eventually settled it with more composed play and by taking the chances they created in the second half.
It was a remarkable difference that the Boks made to the Bulls, with Jacques Potgieter, Flip van der Merwe, Morne Steyn and Zane Kirchner all looking top class in the game.
Yet it didn’t start off that well as the Bulls struggled in the opening exchanges, and had to watch as they were under pressure from the word go with little ball to speak of in the opening 20 minutes.
In that time, Butch James slotted two penalties, and a brilliant bit of counter-attacking led to Michael Rhodes’s try, giving the Lions an early 13-3 lead.
But then Steyn started to take control of the game, and on the back of a pack that was slowly gaining the ascendancy, he clawed the Bulls back into the game.
First a stunning drop goal reminded the crowd that Steyn had refound his confidence, and even though the Lions answered with a penalty, Steyn drilled two more of his own back to bring the Bulls within four points.
Then, as halftime started approaching, Jacques Potgieter burst through a lovely gap and sprinted 50 metres, being stopped just short of the tryline but not before unloading to Bjorn Basson to crash over for the try and take the lead.
Another Steyn penalty made it 22-16 at the break, but that lead was cut almost immediately as Butch James slotted two penalties early in the second half to bring the scores level.
ON A KNIFE EDGE
With the Bulls needing the win to secure their semifinal place, the match was on a knife edge, and it was the Lions who blinked first when Kirchner tapped back an up and under into the hands of Arno Botha, who surged forward before offloading to Jano Vermaak for the try.
While there was some speculation of a forward pass, the TMO decided it was not and gave the try, giving the Bulls the lead.
The Lions fought back, and it wasn’t long before Anthony Volminck spotted a gap behind the ruck and burst through to level the scores again. Little did he know it was the last time the Lions would score on the night.
As the game reached the final quarter, the Bulls' experience and pedigree showed through, and they simply moved away from their opposition, and while a first lineout drive was denied, the second proved a lot more deadly as Botha claimed the score.
Then the wheels really came off for the Lions, as first a quick throw went horribly wrong and captain Dewald Potgieter pounced to grab the loose ball and score, and then in their desperation to run, Butch James slapped back a ball into no-man’s land, with Akona Ndungane driving the final nail into the coffin.
The Bulls may have a tough task in heading to Durban, but given the fight they’ve shown in the last month to get to the semis, they will back themselves all the way.
MTN GOLDEN LIONS – tries: Michael Rhodes, Anthony Volminck. Conversions:
Butch James (2). Penalties: James (5).
VODACOM BLUE BULLS – Tries: Bjorn Basson, Jano Vermaak, Arno Botha, Dewald Potgieter, Akona Ndungane. Conversions: Morne Steyn (4), Louis Fouche (1). Penalties: Steyn (4). Drop goal: Steyn.