Cape Town – The Bulls’ mini-revival came to a grinding halt in the French snow after a disastrous first half led to a 31-7 mauling at the hands of Lyon on Friday night.
Having hit back from a poor finish to 2022 with victories over the Dragons away in the United Rugby Championship and Exeter Chiefs at Loftus Versfeld last weekend, the Pretoria side were well off their best at the freezing Stade Gerland as Lyon claimed their first win in the competition in two years.
The immediate impact of the result is that the Bulls will have to wait for other matches this weekend to see if they advance to the playoffs.
The Bulls are currently in sixth position in Pool A with 13 points after four matches, with Lyon seventh on eight, also from four games.
Harlequins are eighth with seven points and face the Sharks in London on Saturday, Racing 92 are ninth with five points and take on Leinster in Dublin, and Gloucester in 10th (five points) play Bordeaux in France, and it could come down to points difference in the end.
Bulls assistant coaches Chris Rossouw and Russell Winter – who are in charge of the team as director of rugby Jake White recovers from an operation – will be disappointed with the lack of physicality and energy in defence especially in the opening half.
That may be partly down to the long journey from South Africa, but they wouldn’t want to present travel issues as an excuse as they are a much better side than they showed in their first Champions Cup match on French soil.
Lyon cantered to a 24-0 halftime lead as the visitors coughed up possession time and again on attack, and allowed the home side too much leeway in the scrums and breakdowns, where the French side made easy metres around the fringes.
The rot started as early as the fifth minute for the Bulls when meek maul defence off a five-metre lineout saw Lyon hooker Guillaume Marchand break away for a solid start.
Flyhalf Leo Berdeu added the conversion and a penalty to make it 10-0 in as many minutes, and it looked then already as if it will be a long night in the chilly conditions in the artificial pitch for the Bulls.
Despite boasting a lethal backline that included Kurt-Lee Arendse, Canan Moodie and Wandisile Simelane, they were just unable to string together any meaningful phases, with a crucial knock-on, ruck turnover, a loopy pass and weak tackles giving a fired-up Lyon real momentum.
Captain Nizaam Carr – along with Bismarck du Plessis, Marco van Staden and Francois Klopper – tried to stem the tide with a tremendous work-rate on attack and defence, but they received little support from the rest of the pack.
The French side must be commended for disrupting the opposition with a rush defence and big hits knocking the Bulls ball-carriers backwards, while the front row of Simphiwe Matanzima, Bismarck du Plessis and Francois Klopper were under constant pressure in the scrums.
English referee Wayne Barnes eventually issued a yellow card to Matanzima following a team warning for repeated infringements before the break, and just before that, Lyon scrumhalf Jean-Marc Doussain crashed through Johan Goosen’s tackle to make it 17-0.
We're sure scrum halves shouldn't be this built 😆— Heineken Champions Cup (@ChampionsCup) January 20, 2023
Incredible strength from @LeLOURugby 9️⃣ Jean-Marc Doussain to battle over the line with Bulls hanging off him 💪#HeinekenChampionsCup pic.twitter.com/vrX3BWiPkn
Marchand added his second touchdown from another maul, and at 24-0, there was little hope of a comeback from the Bulls.
Arendse finally brought some cheer early in the second half when he pounced on a long pass from Berdeu to grab an intercept try.
The Bulls had another opportunity to get onto the scoreboard from a tap penalty, but Van Staden lost possession as he went over the tryline, and that was largely the end of their challenge.
Lyon landed the knockout blow when Berdeu sliced past Gerhard Steenekamp and Cyle Brink for the four-try bonus point to keep his team’s slim playoff hopes alive for the moment.
Now the Bulls will have to pick themselves up ahead of next Friday’s URC clash against the Scarlets in Llanelli.
Lyon 31 – Tries: Guillaume Marchand (2), Jean-Marc Doussain, Leo Berdeu. Conversions: Berdeu (4). Penalty: Berdeu (1).
Bulls 7 – Try: Kurt-Lee Arendse. Conversion: Johan Goosen (1).