Springbok pivot Morne Steyn produced a near-flawless performance to score 25 points and guide his Vodacom Bulls side to a hard-fought 30-19 Vodacom Super Rugby win over the Waratahs at Loftus Versfeld on Saturday.
Steyn, who scored six penalties, a conversion and a try at the death to ensure the win, was the main difference between the Bulls' slow poison approach and the Waratahs' opportunistic flair.
But despite the scoreline looking flattering for the home side, it was not all that easy and at one stage as the Waratahs clawed their way back from 12-5 down to lead 19-15, it looked as if they were certainly on course to break the hoodoo that no Australian team has won at the stadium since 2007. (The Waratahs last victory here was in 2002).
For a large part of the game, the offside line was non-existent, which allowed the Waratahs' rush defence to shut down the Bulls attacks while using the mistakes to good advantage to outscore the Bulls three tries to two.
The Waratahs will be livid with some of the mistakes they made in the last 20 minutes, which allowed the Bulls to come back and eventually pull away, although you can see the scope of development under coach Michael Cheika.
While the Bulls dominated the lineouts, they suffered in the scrums, and were continually penalised until the arrival of Hencus van Wyk, with questionmarks now raised about Bok Werner Kruger’s technique after being singled out not for the first time this season.
The lineouts though, were like Steyn’s boot, the underlying pillars of their victory as Juandre Kruger and Flip van der Merwe caused such havoc with the Tahs setpiece that they lost no less than eight lineouts on the night, and at times in crucial scoring positions as well.
Yet it was the Tahs' defence that frustrated the Bulls, and more often than not, their penchant for turning mistakes into attacks that often paid off for them in terms of territory and possession.
And on a night where the Bulls decided not to employ their impressive rolling maul more than twice, not utilise the pick and drive but rather spread the ball around, their high-risk strategy at times cost them.
While most will smile at seeing the Bulls moving the ball wide a little more, there were times when their 10-man game plan could have been more clinically employed, although saying that Steyn at most times was superb in his placement and positioning, keeping the team on the front foot throughout.
The Tahs were talking all week about how they shouldn’t let the Bulls get ahead with penalties, yet, for much of the first half, and the Bulls revelling in possession, this is exactly what they did. Steyn had no qualms about setting up the kicks, and it wasn’t long before the visitors found themselves 9-0 behind.
Only a moment of excellence, as they caught the Bulls defence at sixes and sevens, got them onto the board. Israel Folau may be criticised and loved at the same time, but the fullback certainly has good feet.
His wonderful moment in stepping Akona Ndungane, then loping through Ulrich Beyers’s tackle to score in the corner was simple genius. An individual try that befits the status of this competition, and if Robbie Deans hasn’t taken note just yet, the highlights package will surely be shown to him.
Steyn’s penalty at the end of the first half was an important one, as the home side turned 12-5 ahead.
The second half started as a bit of a nightmare for the Bulls. After doing most of the attacking, they found themselves behind the goalline after a turnover took them from the Waratahs line back downfield where Michael Hooper hit a gap between JJ Engelbrecht and a forward to put Paddy Ryan over to level the scores.
Steyn restored the lead with a penalty, and the Bulls were heavy on attack again, but a poor pass to Lionel Mapoe saw the replacement winger fumble and Folau picked up and raced in the opposite direction. Stopped in the 22, the ball was spun wide for Bernard Foley to score against the run of play, and the 80-metre try constituted a 14-point turnaround, leaving the Waratahs 19-15 in front with less than 20 minutes to play.
The Bulls went to their bench and a free kick for an early engagement was taken quickly by Jan Serfontein, with the bullocking forwards finally using the pick and go to good effect before Steyn was stopped short, and Francois Hougaard announced his return after six weeks on the sidelines with a try.
The Bulls upped the pressure as the altitude started to get to the Waratahs. Folau was caught with the ball and Steyn had no hesitation in pumping the ball between the uprights to extend the lead to six.
The visitors tried to run from everywhere, and the Bulls kept pinning them in their 22, where they were finally caught with the ball with two minutes to go, and Steyn uncharacteristically turned down the kick at posts. From the lineout, the Bulls took the ball through four phases, before Steyn found a gap and ghosted through it for the score to secure the game.
The Bulls cemented their place at the top of the SA conference, although the Cheetahs could join them on the log if they take five points from the Kings later on.
Vodacom Bulls – Tries: Francois Hougaard, Morne Steyn. Conversion: Morne Steyn. Penalty: Steyn (6).
Waratahs – Tries: Israel Folau, Paddy Ryan, Bernard Foley. Conversions: Brendan McKibbin (2).