CAPE TOWN – Sometimes no scriptwriter can dream up the kind of thriller a sports game can produce. Just ask the Newlands faithful...
And it was a thriller that even the toughest critics would rate with no shortage of stars.
It was a game in which probably nobody but the Blue Bulls’ most die-hard fans gave them a chance.
After all, Western Province had been unstoppable in the Currie Cup league games and had racked up six massive bonus-point wins en route to the semi-final.
But last night’s battle went into extra time after 80 minutes. And it was all but easy.
It all came down to one last scrum in that last minute – an area where Province have been destructive.
And up until the 80th minute, things went really well in that department for them again.
Tighthead Wilco Louw was on a roll early in the match and made a three-course meal of his opposite number Trevor Nyakane, but the Bulls grew stronger in their set-piece as the game progressed, and it was evident in the second-last scrum.
But that last scrum...
WP had the feed on the Bulls’ five-metre line, but the visitors got away with it.
And their work following the set-piece resulted in the match-drawing try by outside centre Dylan Sage – who was superb in his first starting berth as he attacked the gain-line every time he touched the ball.
Bulls flyhalf Manie Libbok – who hadn’t missed a kick all night – sent his touchline conversion wide, which took the game into 10 minutes per half of extra time.
Province had the chance to get three points in the first extra-time period, and Man-of-the-Match SP Marais, who had a flawless outing with the boot until then, also missed his kick at goal.
But just before the break, Marais made no mistake with the boot and bagged three more points for WP, which proved to be the winning margin, with the final score 35-32.
It would be easy to say that the Bulls deserved victory, though.
The visitors’ defence was a big curb to the hosts’ attempts in the first half, and one has to wonder how advanced Province’s scoreboard digits would have been had it not been for the Bulls’ series of offside offences – which allowed John Dobson’s men a number of shots at goal.
Province looked more determined with ball-in-hand after the break following their first try, but even after what seemed like a high thanks to newly-injected vigour, the last 15 minutes of the game didn’t disappoint when it came to providing bottomless panic.
Especially the last five minutes...
With just five points separating the two sides, WP had to produce rock-solid defence in their own 22 to keep the Bulls from touching the chalk.
And in the last 30 seconds, it all came down to that scrum on the five.
Another interesting part of the game was how Province actually scored fewer tries than the opposition.
WP got on the scoreboard through penalties, and the Bulls’ Ruan Steenkamp scored the first try.
Duncan Matthews ran in another after WP kicked possession away, with Libbok running a good line before drawing defenders in and passing to the winger on his inside to score. Libbok then added the extras.
WP went for posts again when they had a chance with 10 minutes left in the opening half, and Marais made it three out of three to take the score to 9-14.
The Bulls decided to build scoreboard pressure shortly before halftime when they added three points to stretch their lead.
The defending champions decided to close in on the Bulls’ lead five minutes from halftime, when Marais added three points to narrow the margin, and just before the whistle went, Marais added his fifth.
Early in the second half, the duo who orchestrated the Bulls’ second try manoeuvred their third one as well.
Only this time it was Matthews who gave the offload that put Libbok away. The try-scorer added the conversion to get some breathing space between the two scores.
The semi was the first game of the season where Province weren’t able to score a single try in the first 40, but a stunning spell – which saw Dillyn Leyds time his pass to Marais on his outside perfectly – allowed the left wing to get WP’s first five-pointer.
Marais kept his kicking record flawless as he slotted the conversion to narrow the score to two points.
One of the most exciting parts of the match (for the Newlands faithful, that is) came shortly after a triple replacement. And those replacements surely did their part.
Hooker Scarra Ntubeni offered a pair of fresh legs and got straight to work as he pounced on a lineout overthrow by the Bulls in their own 22 and got the ball away.
After working their way into the Bulls’ red zone, Ntubeni was in the mix again as he cleared the ball from the ruck on the Bulls’ five, and passed it to replacement scrumhalf Paul de Wet, who sniped over to put the hosts in the lead.
Marais added two points and took the score to 29-24.
Another penalty kick by Marais after a late, no-arm tackle on flyhalf Damian Willemse stretched their lead.
Sage’s try before extra time returned the advantage to the Bulls, but it was Marais’ boot that granted WP the chance to defend their title against the Sharks next Saturday.
Western Province 35 – Tries: SP Marais, Paul de Wet. Conversions: Marais (2). Penalties: Marais (7).
Blue Bulls 32 – Tries: Ruan Steenkamp, Duncan Matthews, Manie Libbok, Dylan Sage. Conversions: Libbok (3). Penalties: Libbok (2).