The Vodacom Bulls continued their march towards the top of the South African conference as they swept aside the Highlanders 35-18 to record their fifth successive victory since returning from tour in this year’s Vodacom Super Rugby tournament.
The Bulls moved to second spot on the log behind the Chiefs, but they are only two points behind the defending champs with a game in hand as they completed their fixtures against overseas opposition.
The victory underlined their status as the favourites to win the South African conference, although it must be said they have a tough run in of derbies and still need to face the Sharks (home and away), Stormers (away), Cheetahs (away) and Kings (home) before they get to the playoffs.
That part of the equation starts next weekend in Durban when they travel to meet the Sharks, but on a cool night at Loftus there was no other equation but to continue the Highlanders’ season of misery.
Built on the back of a dominant lineout, strong defence and the rock-solid boot of Morne Steyn, the Bulls took their time to score their bonus point try – it only came in the 77th minute – but the win at least gave the 21424 faithful a reason to celebrate.
It also allowed captain Pierre Spies to enjoy successful 100th cap for his franchise, while Steyn’s 15 points were an added bonus to him becoming the most capped Bull of all time.
Still, there is no way coach Frans Ludeke would call the performance an exceptional one. It was workman-like, but still riddled with errors as the Bulls struggled with so much ball against a side that was at times extremely negative.
In fact, the Highlanders can be considered lucky only to get two yellow cards in the game, and could easily had two more for their indiscretions at the breakdown.
The Bulls started like a house on fire, clear with intent as they won the kickoff, and rumbled no less than 14 phases before Francois Hougaard fired a very average pass out to JJ Engelbrecht on the wing who ran in to score the opening try.
Colin Slade reduced the deficit with two penalties, but it was the last the visitors troubled the scorers for a long while as the Bulls took a firm grip on the game. Playing with a confidence they have been building on since they returned from overseas, the Bulls did continue their no-frills attack, and unlike the Stormers, chose to take the points when they came.
Steyn added a further six points with the boot before a controversial TMO decision placed the momentum firmly in their favour with a try two minutes before halftime to Akona Ndungane.
Trying to attack from their own line, the Highlanders spilled the ball from a big hit by Chiliboy Ralepelle (who played an absolute blinder). The ball spilled into the hands of Dewald Potgieter, who sent it to JJ Engelbrecht. Engelbrecht’s pass to Ndungane however looked clearly to go forward, with Ndungane picking it up and running 80 metres to score as the Highlanders stood stunned.
In his reasoning, TMO Johan Greeff said the ball had not clearly gone forward, although on replays it clearly looked as it did. Either way, the try stood and the Bulls entered halftime with a commanding 20-6 lead.
The second half saw the Bulls struggle a lot more, often setting up brilliant attacking moves but failing with a last pass or a dropped ball close to the Highlanders line.
They opened their second stanza well, driving a lineout ball close before Spies took the ball and stretched a long arm over the line.
The Highlanders received their first sin bin when winger Tino Nemani poleaxed Lionel Mapoe, but the Bulls couldn’t capitalise as Jan Serfontein’s surge over the line was adjudged a double movement.
The visitors went temporarily down to 13 when Chris King got his marching orders for taking out the legs of an attacking player in the rolling maul but again the Bulls struggled to capitalise.
They had to wait until the 77th minute when Jano Vermaak took a lovely break on the blind side to score the bonus point try. Again from a rolling maul Vermaak took the ball and sprinted at the angle to beat Hosea Gear and ensure the perfect result for the Bulls.
In-between the Highlanders scored through Fumiaki Tanaka and Tamati Ellison either side of Vermaak’s try, but the night belonged to the Bulls.
And if they display the same sort of form in Durban, the Sharks will have a tough time taming them.
Vodacom Bulls - Tries: JJ Engelbrecht, Akona Ndungane, Pierre Spies, Jano Vermaak. Conversions: Morne Steyn (3). Penalties: Steyn (3)
Highlanders - Tries: Fumiaki Tanaka, Tamati Ellison. Conversion: Hayden Parker. Penalties: Colin Slade (2)