The Vodacom Bulls booked their place in the Vodacom Super Rugby Finals series, courtesy of a powerful second-half performance to beat a gutsy Lions side 37-20 at Loftus Versfeld on Saturday night.
It means the Bulls will now claim fifth place and head to Christchurch to face the Crusaders while the Sharks, who finished sixth, will head to Brisbane to face the Reds in their Finals qualifier. It also means that Jake White’s Brumbies, third at the start of the round, end seventh and miss out as South Africa have three sides in the top six.
But it wasn’t an easy ride for the Bulls against the bottom-of-the-log Lions, as the visitors kept them to a 20-all scoreline at the break before the Bulls powered away in the second half.
There was an element of surprise as it may have been argued that the Bulls would rather have travelled to Brisbane, where their record is better, but at halftime it is likely the Bulls decided to win the game first and worry about permutations second, especially as they needed the victory to stay in the competition.
The Lions certainly came to play and produced a performance that stand-in coach Johan Ackermann would be proud of. They took the Bulls on up front, messed with their scrum, and put in the big hits when necessary.
However, their lineout was a shambles, and this is where the Bulls capitalised, while the Lions' heart and passion only took them so far. They are still a step behind the Bulls.
The game started at a furious pace, and the Lions showed their hand early, spreading the ball wide at every occasion, but while they went ahead early on an Elton Jantjies penalty, they were quickly behind, thanks to a perfectly timed intercept from Akona Ndungane off a telegraphed pass by the Lions flyhalf.
The Bulls quickly moved into overdrive, and the Lions defence held up, but Morne Steyn’s boot took them ahead with a penalty.
Bjorn Basson pressed home the Bulls' advantage as Francois Hougaard gave him the perfect pass into space, allowing the winger to score his 10th try of the season and break Bryan Habana’s long-standing Bulls record for the most Super Rugby tries in a season.
At 17-3, the Lions were staring down a barrel, but a Jantjies penalty, followed by a great break by Michael Bondesio to score from a five-metre scrum brought them right back in the game.
And then on the stroke of halftime, the Lions chose a lineout rather than a penalty in front of the posts, and watched as captain Josh Strauss, nowadays without his trademark beard, drove over the line to score and bring them level.
The second half was a different story, as the Bulls stepped up a gear to pound the Lions line, with JJ Engelbrecht putting in a magical run to set up the move, and Hougaard spotting a massive gap to run in untouched for the try.
Jacques Potgieter crossed shortly afterwards to grab the bonus point and set the Bulls heading to Christchurch, with the game settled by then.
The Lions tried hard, but the game tended to go into a lull, with the Bulls defence just too strong for the Lions, who were eager, but made way too many mistakes.
Morne Steyn settled matters with a penalty late in the game, and the Bulls sent on their subs to see the minutes out.
VODACOM BULLS – Tries: Akona Ndungane, Bjorn Basson, Francois Hougaard, Jacques Potgieter. Conversions: Morne Steyn (4). Penalties: Morné Steyn (2).
MTN LIONS – Tries: Michael Bondesio, Josh Strauss. Conversions: Elton Jantjies (2). Penalties: Elton Jantjies (2).