Blues outmuscle the Bulls
Blues flyhalf Gareth Anscombe turned in a near perfect performance to score all his side’s points as they outgunned the Bulls 29-23 at Loftus Versfeld on Saturday night.
It was the Blues' first win in Pretoria for eight years, their second-ever in the capital and their first of the season after two derby losses in New Zealand.
But on a night where errors abounded and the penalty count reached above 30, it was 20-year old Anscombe who shone brighter than all the others, scoring two tries, which he converted and added five penalties to his toll.
The youngster was part of the Blues' wider training squad last year, and the injury to Michael Hobbs last week allowed him the opportunity to play and show the potential that made him the top points-scorer at last year’s IRB Junior World Championship in Italy.
But while the Bulls managed to sneak a bonus point at the end, they were far from the dominant force in Bloemfontein last weekend, and were outmuscled at the breakdown and had their rhythm disturbed too many times for comfort.
It isn’t a normal occurrence to see points machine Morne Steyn upstaged at his Fortress Loftus, but young Anscombe did just that. The Springbok pivot in contrast didn’t have his best outing on the park, uncharacteristically missing four kicks at goal and looking sterile on attack.
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But while Steyn struggled there were a few bright lights – including that of CJ Stander, a late replacement 24 hours before the game when Deon Stegmann went down with a hamstring problem.
When that happened, the Bulls were always going to struggle without a fetcher, especially against two from the Blues, but Stander did a sterling job in covering the bases.
Add to that the growing star of Chiliboy Ralepelle, who along with Juandre Kruger turned in another good performance, but other than the running exploits of winger Akona Ndungane, and Bjorn Basson’s try-scoring runs, there was little to speak about.
In contrast the Blues forwards were as physical as they came, with the Braid brothers while Keven Mealamu led his side with aplomb.
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On a night where the Bulls needed to start off well, they had possibly the worst start they could have had, as from their first movement, a mishap between Steyn and young Francois Venter fluffed a scissor movement, with the ball bouncing perfectly into Anscombe’s hands to run 40 metres to score.
The Bulls shook off the early error, but were 10-0 behind when Anscombe added another penalty. But when they finally got going, they dominated every facet of the play, with their trademark rolling maul working overtime, and it wasn’t long before Ali Williams was dispatched to the bin for deliberate collapsing of the maul.
The Bulls had a few cracks at the line, but it was eventually captain Pierre Spies, who led from the front throughout, who crossed the line to score the first try. Steyn’s poor kicking started there, and it seemed that it would be a long night for the Bulls.
A penalty apiece and the Bulls seemed to be controlling things, but a 75-metre run of play which saw the ball go through several phases eventually left Anscombe to take the pass and score, putting his side 20-8 ahead at the break.
The Bulls tried their best in the second stanza, but a plethora of errors led to penalties, and they weren’t able to gain the momentum they needed to start their big comeback.
When Anscombe slotted his second penalty to put his side 26-11 ahead, the Bulls realised they were more than two scores behind, and suddenly started looking for holes in the defence with some expansive play.
Basson found some space on the outside, and went in after some sustained attack by the Bulls, giving them some hope of stealing the result. But a big penalty from Anscombe, from the halfway line, put the Blues out too far ahead.
The Bulls scored in the last minute, Basson being cruelly hit by Rene Ranger as he dived over, the illegal tackle costing the latter a yellow card.
But while a yellow automatically means a penalty, referee Steve Walsh refused to give the penalty because time was up, despite some desperate pleas from Spies at the death.
The Bulls grabbed a bonus point on a night where their play probably didn’t deserve it, but in the larger scope of things, they will be very happy, despite the loss, to leave their ground with anything at all.
Vodacom Bulls – Tries: Pierre Spies, Bjorn Basson (2). Penalties: Morne Steyn (2).
Blues – Tries: Gareth Anscombe (2). Conversions: Anscombe (2). Penalties: Anscombe (5).