Bulls secure Currie Cup top spot after hard-fought victory over Lions
CAPE TOWN – The Bulls confirmed their status as the top side in South African rugby this season by grinding out a 22-15 victory over the Lions on Wednesday to secure top spot on the Currie Cup log.
It wasn’t the best match to watch, considering the slippery conditions caused by the rain that fell over Pretoria, but coach Jake White won’t be too bothered by the stop-start performance as the Bulls will host a semi-final and a possible final.
It was a lost opportunity for the Lions, who will have to travel to Loftus Versfeld again, while Western Province will host the Sharks at Newlands in the other semi-final – with both encounters scheduled for January 16.
The Bulls, who still have a league game against the Pumas in Nelspruit on Sunday, are on 39 points, followed by WP on 37, Sharks on 35 and Lions on 34 after Province and the Sharks received two log points when their league game was cancelled on Wednesday due to Covid-19 protocols.
Now White will have the luxury of fielding a second-string side against the Pumas, after he expressed his concern this week about having limited time to prepare the Bulls for the semi-finals.
Duane Vermeulen did lead the team out against the Lions as the Bulls fielded most of their first-choice forwards, but they were missing a number of backline stars such as Stedman Gans, Cornal Hendricks and Kurt-Lee Arendse, who were all unavailable due to Covid-19 protocols.
But due to the wet surface and perhaps the high stakes of a home semi-final at stake, the match was littered with errors from both sides. The lack of match practice was evident in the Bulls’ performance, as they last played on December 12, when they lost to the Sharks in Durban.
The Lions were quicker out of the blocks, with fullback Tiaan Swanepoel booting them into a 9-0 lead after 20 minutes as the Bulls battled in the scrums.
But referee Cwengile Jadezweni felt that the Lions were beginning to ‘walk around the corner’ in the set-piece, especially loosehead Dylan Smith, and soon enough, Bulls flyhalf Chris Smith levelled the scoreboard at 9-9 with three penalties of his own.
Springbok tighthead Trevor Nyakane eventually won his battle with Smith, who had to leave the field with an injury just before halftime after being shoved back in a scrum.
Smith landed a fourth penalty to claim a 12-9 halftime lead for the Bulls, whose pack of forwards were slowly but surely gaining the ascendancy in the collisions.
The turning point of the game came early in the second half, when Man of the Match Embrose Papier showed his trademark speed and grit to power through a Dan Kriel tackle to score after an offload from Vermeulen off a scrum.
It was a long way back at 19-9 for the Lions, who didn’t help themselves by kicking possession away instead of holding on to the ball.
Swanepoel slotted two more penalties to make it an exciting finish at 19-15, but the Bulls absorbed the pressure at a couple of lineout mauls, and replacement Morné Steyn sealed the deal with a late three-pointer.
Bulls 22 – Try: Embrose Papier. Conversion: Chris Smith (1). Penalties: Smith (4), Morné Steyn (1).
Lions 15 – Penalties: Tiaan Swanepoel (5).