Cape Town - After a nightmare first half, the Bulls rolled up their sleeves and found their spark in the second to fight back and score 26 points for a well-deserved 29-19 United Rugby Championship victory over Cardiff on Saturday night.
It was a case of third time lucky for Jake White’s team on tour, after they lost to Leinster and Connacht over the last two weeks.
It looked like another long night for the Currie Cup champions after they trailed 16-3 at halftime, as they battled to get their rhythm going on attack and were blown off the park at the breakdowns by Irish referee Chris Busby.
But they roared back into contention with a try after the break by No 8 Elrigh Louw, and maintained the momentum right until the end.
Initially, though, the Bulls were 13-0 down in 18 minutes and had lost star flyhalf Johan Goosen to a knee injury when he tried to side-step and fell to the ground. It looked serious at the time, and he is unlikely to be ready for next week’s game against Edinburgh – and could be out of contention for the Springbok tour of Europe in November as well.
Cardiff flyhalf Rhys Priestland slotted two early penalties, despite lock Seb Davies receiving a yellow card in the seventh minute for a no-arms ruck clean-out on David Kriel.
The hosts scored the opening try in the 18th minute, when No 5 lock Matthew Screetch forced his way over from close-range, and even though Bulls replacement pivot Chris Smith got them on to the board with a penalty, Priestland added another himself for a 16-3 halftime advantage.
The Bulls seemed to battle to retain possession after going into contact, as they either lost the ball on the ground or conceded a penalty. They also lacked variety with ball-in-hand, opting to use their forwards as one-off runners up the middle instead of utilising speedy wings Kurt-Lee Arendse and Madosh Tambwe, who looked dangerous every time they did get possession.
But as soon as the second half started, the men from Pretoria cut out the handling errors and poor discipline, with Louw getting them going with his trademark tap penalty and charge towards the line.
Smith narrowed the gap to just three points with a conversion and penalty to make it 16-13 to Cardiff, and then Priestland missed a crucial penalty that hit the left-hand upright.
The Bulls scrambled excellently in defence as well, with Arendse, Tambwe, David Kriel, Bismarck du Plessis and captain Marcell Coetzee busy around the pitch.
But you also need some luck to win rugby matches, and the Bulls earned theirs through much more physical tackles in the second half, with one loose ball seeing Tambwe booting it ahead and winning the sprint to the line to score.
That touchdown seemed to break Cardiff’s spirit, as Smith added three more penalties in the final quarter to secure a much-needed victory for White’s team.
Cardiff 19 – Tries: Matthew Screetch. Conversion: Rhys Priestland (1). Penalties: Priestland (4).
Bulls 29 – Tries: Elrigh Louw, Madosh Tambwe. Conversions: Chris Smith (2). Penalties: Smith (5).