Cape Town — The Blue Bulls may have lost a titanic struggle 31-27 to the Cheetahs, but they will be relieved as two bonus points saw them advance to the Currie Cup semi-finals in dramatic fashion at Loftus Versfeld on Saturday.
Jake White’s move up to 38 points on the log, which saw them edge into fourth position ahead of the Lions on 36, while Western Province – who take on the Sharks in the final league game – cannot go higher than 37.
It was a monumental effort from the Bulls as No 8 Elrigh Louw received a controversial red card just before halftime, which meant that they were always on the back foot in the second half.
But despite being down to 14 men, the Pretoria side never gave up, and even though they lost the match in the end, they scored four tries and were within four points of the Cheetahs, which secured two log points to send them into the last four.
Before Louw’s expulsion, the Bulls roared into action in the last home match for veterans Morné Steyn and Bismarck du Plessis before their retirements as they scored three tries in just 14 minutes via Cornal Hendricks, Harold Vorster and Embrose Papier.
The opener from Bulls wing Hendricks came from a pinpoint Steyn up-and-under that was won in the air by fullback Johan Goosen, and the ball was quickly recycled before captain Marcell Coetzee found Stedman Gans, who drew the last defender before putting Hendricks away in the fifth minute.
Just three minutes later, the Bulls pounced on a knock-on by Cheetahs flank Siba Qoma, with David Kriel racing away and finding Vorster with an inside pass.
The best touchdown, though, came from scrumhalf Papier, following a line-break by lock Ruan Vermaak, with the No 9 leaving Cheetahs No 10 Siya Masuku for dead with a devastating side-step.
It looked like it was going to be a long afternoon for the visitors at 19-0 down, but they worked their way back into the game through a try by centre David Brits.
The Bulls wasted a number of attacking opportunities, with the resolute Cheetahs defence dominating the breakdowns to create several turnovers.
Their perseverance was rewarded when some poor Bulls defence in the 34th minute allowed wing Daniel Kasende to dart through and reduce the deficit to 19-14.
But two minutes before halftime, Louw received a red card from referee AJ Jacobs for a dangerous clean-out on Cheetahs No 7 Qoma. Jacobs initially felt that it should be a yellow card, but TMO Aimee Barrett-Theron suggested that it was worth more because of Louw’s tucked arm as he made direct contact to the head, and Jacobs eventually agreed.
Steyn missed a long-range penalty before halftime, but landed a three-pointer early in the second half to stretch the Bulls’ lead to 22-14.
But the Free Staters kept going, and flyhalf Masuku produced a dazzling solo effort in which he went around Steyn to make it a one-point game at 22-21.
The Bloemfontein side revelled in the extra space they were afforded following Louw’s departure, and scored their third try through scrumhalf Rewan Kruger to take a 28-22 lead with half-an-hour to go.
It seemed as if the Bulls were going to come up short, but Hendricks grabbed his second five-pointer following a five-metre tap penalty – while Cheetahs replacement George Cronjé was also yellow-carded in that passage of play for a cynical infringement.
But Goosen missed the touchline conversion, which meant the Cheetahs were 28-27 ahead.
The Bulls No 15 nearly landed a monster 59-metre penalty with 14 minutes left, but the ball fell just short.
The Cheetahs’ defence held strong, though, and the Bulls’ unforced errors on attack hamstrung their quest for victory.
Masuku slotted a 72nd-minute penalty to make it 31-27 to the visitors, and while the Bulls camped in the opposition 22 well beyond the hooter, they weren’t able to land the knockout blow.
White, though, will be glad that his team can prepare for a semi-final – which will be away from home – as anything can happen in a one-off knockout game.
Blue Bulls 27 – Tries: Cornal Hendricks (2), Harold Vorster, Embrose Papier. Conversions: Morné Steyn (2). Penalty: Steyn (1).
Cheetahs 31 – Tries: David Brits, Daniel Kasende, Siya Masuku, Rewan Kruger. Conversions: Masuku (4). Penalty: Masuku (1).