Bulls survive Lion mauling
The Vodacom Bulls opened their defence of their Super Rugby title with a nerve-wracking 24-20 win over neighbours, the Lions at Coca-Cola Park on Saturday.
After a solid start where the Bulls showed just why they won the competition for the past two years, the Lions stormed back in the second and were rather unlucky not to steal it at the end as the Bulls faded.
While the champions will head across the Jukskei with the four points in the bag, they will also know they have a lot of questions to answer before heading to Bloemfontein this week, much more so than their opposition.
After being more composed for most of the first half, and showing clinical rugby in building an innings, the Bulls looked shell-shocked in the second half and had to dig deep into their reserves to eventually come up with the win.
The Lions, who found some potion at the break, were a different team in the second half, and surprised their opposition by holding onto the ball, looking dangerous as they attacked from angles and split the Bulls defence on more than one occasion.
In the end experience probably won it for the visitors, as they had enough composure to close out the game in the Lions half in the last few minutes, and ensure they came away with the victory. The Lions showed excellent promise and confirmed they are on an upward curve, but some poor handling, poor options and ultimately a little too much eagerness were their downfall.
The Bulls will thank their stars for the first half, where they deviated a little from their tried and trusted to spread the ball wide with fullback Zane Kirchner looking increasingly dangerous on attack.
The option to take on the Lions out wide worked well, and rattled the young home side. It may, however, have come at a high cost as hooker Gary Botha walked off clutching his shoulder and could be out for a while.
But in the second half, the bounce of the ball favoured the home side more, they played with more confidence and lapped up the ball the Bulls kept on pumping down their throats. The Bulls seemed set to stay back and wait for the Lions' mistakes, giving them the momentum and extra space they needed to launch the comeback.
Had Elton Jantjies not fluffed several kicks and used wrong options early on, it may have been a different story for the home side, but to his credit he did come back well in the second half.
The crucial part that counted, however, was the way the Bulls built a lead in the first half. The Lions started off firing, but were quickly knocked back by two tries where the Bulls exposed their inexperience to grab a healthy lead.
The first came from Kirchner surging through on the wing, setting the ball up and then popping up on the other side of the field to finish the move. The second, a sublime try, proved there is no substitute for pace as Gerhard van den Heever fielded a poor chip from Elton Jantjies, evaded him and then launched himself through a gap to score.
While Van den Heever was impressive in motoring past the first line of defence, it was his swerve and accelleration that gave him the try as he flat-footed both Lionel Mapoe and Jaco Taute on his way to the line.
With a 12-0 lead, the Bulls simply looked to their deadly striker -- Morne Steyn -- to keep the scoreboard ticking over and he complied as they hit the Lions hard with penalty after penalty, with Steyn grabbing four in the remainder of the half.
The Lions did strike back shortly before halftime, as a fortuitous dropped pass by Jantjies was grabbed and recycled for Murray to dive over but at 24-5 they looked dead and buried at the break.
The second half breathed new life into the home side, and they suddenly found their confidence, while the Bulls took their foot off the pedal just enough to tip the scales against them.
The Bulls scrambled well, but made too many errors on defence and with pressure mounting, a yellow card for Stephan Dippenaar, as a result of repeated team infringements, was only fair.
It was no surprise when after several multiphase attacks replacement hooker Martin Bezuidenhout found space to go over in the right hand corner, but the Bulls seemed ill-equipped for the wave of attacks as the Lions looked to counter with virtually every ball.
Shortly afterwards Warren Whiteley went over in a heap of bodies to bring the Lions within seven, and a revived Coca-Cola Park roared with approval for the resurgence of Johannesburg’s team.
As the Bulls desperately held on, Jantjies held his nerve for a penalty to bring them within four, but the composure of the Bulls held through, as they finished strong to ensure they started their 2011 campaign on a winning note.
It may not have been pretty, but with both sides leaving with honour, it was a great advertisement for South African rugby.
Lions - Tries: Waylon Murray, Martin Bezuidenhout, Warren Whiteley. Conversion: Elton Jantjes. Penalty: Jantjes.
Bulls - Tries: Zane Kirchner, Gerhard van den Heevr. Conversion: Morne Steyn. Penalties: Steyn (4).