The Vodacom Bulls used their get-out-of-jail card early this year, struggling to put the Western Force away 36-26 in a negative and frustrating Vodacom Super Rugby game at Loftus Versfeld on Saturday.
There is no doubt this is what they mean by winning ugly, and the Bulls will put this one behind them as they leave on Tuesday for Auckland and a much tougher challenge against the high-riding Blues at Eden Park next week.
But against a Force side that lived on negative tactics and were often allowed to get away with them by referee Jason Japhta, the Bulls were pulled down to the Australian team’s level and often came second in the exchanges as they produced a poor performance in front of 29 000 fans.
The Bulls will want to forget this one as quickly as possible, although it must be remembered that despite everyone writing the Force off throughout the week, they are a bogey team that the Bulls perennially struggle with, having beaten the Bulls at Loftus a few years back.
Still, with a clear game-plan in mind to attack the Bulls on the ground, the Force succeeded as they played the percentages, and while the home side should have put them away a long time before the end, they hung in there until the last minute when Werner Kruger snaffled their bonus point away from them.
Sias Ebersohn’s first-half performance as well would have won him many plaudits, especially after the way he left Bloemfontein last year and considering the way the Cheetahs kicked earlier on Saturday, there may be some Cheetahs supporters who wouldn’t mind him returning that way.
The Bulls did what they needed to do though, and they won despite playing poorly. The experience in the side shone through and while it was never pretty, the five points they earned were worth their weight in gold.
But they did make things difficult for themselves.
To give 11 turnovers in the first half and another eight in the second was one of the biggest problems for the home side.
With both Deon Stegmann and Dewald Potgieter on the sidelines, they struggled to control their own ball but eventually regained their dominance as their maul took control in the second half to put them home.
Referee Japhta had a solid first game in Super Rugby, but was at times a bit too lenient, especially with the Force.
At one stage he gave a final warning for infringing in the maul, and when it happened again, he issued another warning. Still, he has a bright future and should go a long way with the whistle.
Flyhalf Morne Steyn had another excellent game, scoring a try in the opening minute after being put into a hole by a perfect pass from Francois Hougaard, before sprinting into the corner for the try.
Despite another penalty by Steyn, Ebersohn put over a drop goal and two penalties to put the Force in the lead.
Steyn restored the lead with a kick of his own, but the Bulls were denied a bigger lead after a beauty of a run down the touchline by Bjorn Basson.
The TMO ruled the pass from Lionel Mapoe was forward though, and the try was denied.
Another penalty for Steyn sent the Bulls into a 14-9 lead, but it wasn’t long into the second half when Ebersohn drilled his second drop goal to cut the lead to two points.
Steyn put Sampie Mastriet into a hole on the sideline, and the winger danced his way past the defence with little space to move to score a try on debut.
However, as another example of how the Bulls changed from Jekyll to Hyde, Steyn threw a poor pass shortly afterwards that was snapped by Andy Cottrell and the flanker ran 50 metres to level the scores.
Things looked to be going horribly wrong for the Bulls as Toby Lynn grabbed the lead by burrowing over from close range, and at 26-19 behind, the Bulls started to realise they could well lose the match.
The resolve came back, and the Bulls started using the rolling maul well.
The Force were lucky not to concede a yellow card as they infringed at will and Steyn snapped another penalty before Jean Cook added his name to the scorers list by going over at the back of another rampant maul.
With their noses in front the Bulls kept on hammering, and when Kruger went over on the hooter, they felt vindicated. Five points in the bag and two wins from two, they will leave on tour with confidence.
But they will also know they were lucky on the night and need to iron out a number of issues. Those, however, are easier to do when you’re winning, and for that they will be grateful.
Vodacom Bulls – Tries: Morné Steyn, Sampie Mastriet, Jean Cook, Werner Kruger. Conversions: Steyn (2). Penalties: Steyn (2).
Western Force Tries: Angus Cottrell, Toby Lynn. Conversion: Sias Ebersohn (2) . Penalties: Ebersohn (2). Drop Goals: Ebersohn (2).