For such a hotly contested rivalry, especially in the late 1980s and early 1990s when the power gradually shifted down the N1 from Tshwane to Johannesburg, the Bulls and the Lions have hardly met in Currie Cup play-off games in the professional era.
The Lions and the Bulls, in their former names, engaged in some thrilling playoff contests, with the 1987 Naas Botha final and the 1991 encounter being two prominent ones.
The dominance of the Bulls has been very clear though, especially in the years when they’ve won the Currie with the exception of 2005 when the Cheetahs staged what remains the most improbable of Currie Cup final heists.
The Lions' Currie Cup play-off failings, especially those of the past five years, have been documented and while they haven’t involved the Bulls, they speak of a team that’s been unable to get over the final hurdle.
The Bulls haven’t been very good either with Currie Cup play-off games in recent years, but here are four memorable professional era:
1996: Bulls 21-31 Lions at Loftus Versfeld
Three things are significant about this result. Firstly, it was the last time these teams would play under their Transvaal/Northern Transvaal names. Secondly, it remains the last time the Lions have beaten the Bulls in a Currie Cup play-off game. Thirdly, the Lions dynasty painstakingly built under the late Louis Luyt, the late Kitch Christie and Francois Pienaar was finally coming apart. With the Sharks winning the previous year’s Currie Cup, the passing of the baton had started. The Lions were still a formidable force, with their dispatching of Western Province in the quarterfinals an example. They saw off the Bulls but ran into an immovable force that was the Sharks at Ellis Park.
2002: Lions 7-31 Bulls at Ellis Park
After their surprise 1998 triumph, the Bulls fell on hard times, not taking part in three consecutive play-off stages while also not even being in the 2000 top eight stage while being seventh in the top eight the following year. A revival had started under Heyneke Meyer and when they arrived at Ellis Park, the Lions were favourites, but no one had told this to Derick Hougaard. The youngster upstaged the established Springbok Andre Pretorius, even though they traded tries. It was Hougaard’s boot that stole the show and the Lions wouldn’t be seen in a final until 2007 because of the Bulls. For the Bulls, it was the start of something special, especially after their dismal Super 12 campaign where they lost every game
2004: Bulls 40-33 Lions at Loftus Versfeld
The Bulls were probably at their Currie Cup prime, with the incomparable Etienne Botha running rings around everything and everyone, while the Lions had a young, but very exciting Bryan Habana in their ranks. The Lions played brave rugby and were a far better team than their Cats Super Rugby unit that were beaten black and blue earlier in the year. Pretorius’s boot was prodigious in this game, but again was outmatched by Hougaard and a powerful Bulls team that hardly gave them a sniff.
2005: Bulls 31-23 Lions at Loftus Versfeld
By now, Pretorius must have been sick of young Bulls’ flyhalves standing in the way of his Currie Cup glory. In 2002 and 2004, it was Derick Hougaard. In 2005, it was Morne Steyn, who would go on to hit some great heights. The Bulls always had control of this game, more than the Lions would think despite a brace from Wayne Julies. Steyn’s boot kept the Bulls ahead at most corners, along with tries from Pedrie Wannenburg, Anton Leonard, Akona Ndungane ensured the Bulls got into their third consecutive final, one that would go down in history. It would need the Bulls to fail to get into the play-offs two years later, only for the Lions to slip up against the Cheetahs. They had to wait another four years for Currie Cup glory, while the Bulls claimed their 23rd and last title in 2009.