Bulls tipped to take title

2009-05-17 00:00

THE Bulls are strongly favoured to repeat their 2007 heroics and take the Super 14 title after they topped the log by narrowly defeating a brave Sharks side 27-26 at King’s Park on Saturday.

The Bulls (46 points) meet the fourth-placed Crusaders (41) while the Chiefs, placed second on 45 points, are at home in Hamilton to the Hurricanes (44) in an all-New Zealand play-off. But, of course, the Bulls now have the luxury of playing both the semi-final, and if they win, the final against travelling New Zealand teams at altitude and at Loftus to win the title.

The scramble for the top four play-off places could not have been tighter and they were decided only in the closing moments of the final round- robin game.

The log standings changed throughout the weekend and the Sharks went into the final game needing to win with four tries for a bonus point to make the semi-finals. The Bulls were in third spot, but four points for a win would land them the big prize of top spot.

The result was the most intriguing of contests, a contrast of styles and moods. The Sharks, playing at pace and with ambition, threw everything into attack. The Bulls, trying to grind out a win, slowed the pace of the game and looked for territory.

There were times in the second half when it seemed the Sharks would have their fairy-tale finish, but it was the ability of the Bulls to turn sustained pressure into points — with three tries and two drops by flyhalf Morne Steyn — which finally pipped the Sharks’ four tries.

The Sharks made their intentions clear from the start, spurning goal-able penalties and running everything at the Bulls. But the Bulls, playing the territory game, opened the scoring when they recycled possession and fullback Zane Kirchner scored.

Two Bulls players were sin-binned, centre JP Nel for a head high challenge on Stefan Terblanche and flank Deon Stegmann for spoiling the ball at a ruck. The Sharks opened their score shortly before half-time when a lineout maul allowed flank Keegan Daniel to score an unconverted try. A Steyn drop on the half-time hooter gave the Bulls a 10-5 advantage.

The Sharks’ inspired rugby of the first 10 minutes of the second half suggested it was to be their day as they fashioned two superb tries. The first was by Odwa Ndungane after Terblanche’s strong run and a deft pass by John Smit opened the Bulls’ defence. The second was a spectacular effort launched from a tap penalty and continued by the deceptively quick prop, Beast Mtawarira, Ndungane and Ruan Pienaar before Steven Sykes scored. The Sharks were 19-10 ahead, they had three of their four tries and they had momentum.

But, as captain Victor Matfield said later, the Bulls have the character of champions and with the composed Fourie du Preez pulling the strings at scrumhalf, they played their way back into the Sharks’ quarter and the game. Again the Sharks ran out of defenders on their line as the Bulls kept the ball alive and wing Akona Ndungane crossed (19-17).

JP Pietersen stepped into touch as the Sharks thought they had scored the bonus point try, but Steyn kicked his second drop (20-19) midway through the half.

The heaving, see-sawing match turned in a critical five-minute period. The Sharks’ play-making flyhalf, Ruan Pienaar, was helped off the field with a an ankle injury 12 minutes before the end and then Bulls captain Matfield, presented with a goalable penalty, which would have taken them into a four-point lead, sensibly opted for a kick to touch and replacement lock Danie Rossouw scored after intense pressure (27-19). The Bulls, eight points clear, had the match safe although Ryan Kankowski did barge over from a scrum in the last move of the game (27-26) for the Sharks to take two bonus points from the game.

Said Matfield, “We knew the Sharks were on a mission to score four tries and a lead of four points wouldn’t have helped us if they did score again.”

In other Saturday games, the Hurricanes beat the Reds 37-28 in Brisbane to take third spot, the Force edged the Highlanders 33-28 in Perth and the Stormers continued their late revival with a 28-22 win over the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein.

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