The Vodacom Bulls kept their playoff hopes alive with a nail-biting 26-21 win over the Toyota Cheetahs in their Vodacom Super Rugby clash at Loftus Versfeld on Saturday.
The Bulls clawed their way back from 18-9 down at halftime to score two tries in the second half and then hold out strongly on defence as the Cheetahs threw everything they had at them.
In beating the Cheetahs they also ruined the visiting captain Adriaan Strauss’ 100th game celebrations, but more importantly gave themselves a chance to make the playoffs this year with five games left in their season.
But while it wasn’t a classic performance by the Bulls it was an entertaining one by both teams, who despite making many mistakes tried to attack from deep and run from almost every chance they had, giving the 17606 fans who turned up value for their money.
The Bulls youth brigade looked good, and the decision to play the SA under-20 backline combination of Handre Pollard, Jan Serfontein and William Small-Smith looked promising with Serfontein in particular combining well with his outside centre and putting him into gaps early on in the game.
Up front Marcel van der Merwe put in an impressive performance, while Paul Willemse continues to grow with every game.
And while the breakdown was still a problem, and the Bulls have no counter to an opposition openside flank like Heinrich Brussow, the game leant itself to a much more open approach.
Brussow looked good but wasn’t perhaps as accurate as he would have liked, but Jean Cook’s brief appearance on the field was something to savour and the Cheetahs backline when on attack is always a beauty to behold.
The Cheetahs are masters of making their own luck at times, and none more so than Johann Sadie’s intercept in the 17th minute after the Bulls had been heavily on the attack.
After pounding the line for several phases, a flat pass from Pollard went perfectly into Sadie’s hands, who took it with glee and ran more than 80 metres on his way to the tryline to score the opening try.
Not only was it against the run of play but it also was a 14-point turnaround after the Bulls had dominated the previous minutes.
And the Cheetahs grew with confidence, gaining a numerical advantage when Pollard was yellow carded a few minutes later after Sarel Pretorius had taken a quick tap penalty and was tackled within the 10 metre area from the mark.
It was a silly penalty, but worth nothing more, and the overzealous whistle of Marius van der Westhuizen decided otherwise. It became even more ridiculous a few minutes later when both Adriaan Strauss and Heinrich Brussow were pinned for killing the ball in their own 22 a short while later but neither incident was adjudged cynical.
Visser pulled back a penalty before another controversial decision – this time to disallow a try to Marcel van der Merwe became a talking point.
Victor Matfield was adjudged to be in an accidental offside position as Van der Merwe picked the ball up from a ruck and burst through to score. Television replays showed that Matfield impeded Brussow, but it would have been a moot point as a ruck had been formed, but neither officials saw it that way.
Pollard brought his team within four with his second penalty of the game, but then the Cheetahs produced a moment of magic that turned the game firmly in their favour just before the break.
Elgar Watts gave the perfect pass to a flying Sadie, who offloaded in the tackle to Rayno Benjamin before the Bulls could blink. Benjamin, reveling in his new role as an inside centre, sent the perfect pass out to Raymond Rhule to dive in at the corner.
At 18-9 down at halftime, the Bulls started carving their way back into the game. Using their rolling maul to good effect, and winning the lottery of the scrums they managed to gain a foothold in the Cheetahs half.
It was a bold decision from Matfield that swung it their way. Turning down a kick in front of the poles, the Bulls chose to run the ball, and hit it up close to the line. When Paul Willemse got his hands on the pill, he deftly twisted his way around from close range to force his way over and his team firmly back in the game.
Johan Goosen extended the lead to five points but the Bulls kept on attacking and on the hour it was Callie Visagie who stormed over from close range with the help of two teammates to put them on level terms.
Pollard converted the try to give the Bulls the lead and a frantic last 20 minutes ensued.
Goosen missed a chance shortly afterwards to claim back the lead, and when Jacques-Louis Potgieter got onto the field, he made no mistake with his only penalty chance, taking the Bulls out to a five point lead.
This is where they stayed as both sides came close to adding to their totals as the clock ticked down.
In the end the Bulls desperation won the day – perhaps as they had something to play for. Survival in the competition may be one thing, but there still is a long road ahead as they stay firmly rooted in 10th spot.
But after four losses on tour the return to Loftus makes a massive difference.
And anyone foolish enough to write off the Bulls at this stage may have to think again.
Vodacom Bulls - Tries: Paul Willemse, Callie Visagie. Conversion: Handre Pollard (2). Penalties: Pollard (2), Jurgen Visser, Jacques-Louis Potgieter.
Toyota Cheetahs - Tries: Johann Sadie, Raymond Rhule. Conversion: Elgar Watts. Penalties: Watts (2), Johan Goosen.