The Bulls gave it their absolute all, but were denied by a gritty Hurricanes outfit in a 35-28 Super Rugby quarter-final thriller at the Westpac Stadium in Wellington on Saturday.
A combination of poor execution at times, as well as some questionable refereeing saw the Pretoria side just come up short after a gallant performance in the New Zealand capital.
Throughout the game, just when it seemed like the Bulls were on top, they would make a mistake and the Hurricanes capitalised.
After Beauden Barrett put the hosts up with an early penalty, the Bulls struck with the first try when Jesse Kriel cut the Hurricanes defensive line, and fed Warrick Gelant to dot down in the 13th minute.
But the Kiwis hit back strongly, first with a typically belligerent effort by TJ Perenara, and then wing Ben Lam finished off following a driving maul.
And when replacement wing Salesi Rayasi pounced after a quick lineout near the halfway line to catch the Bulls napping, the Hurricanes were suddenly 24-7 ahead after 27 minutes.
But this Bulls team showed great character to claw their way back into the match. With the forwards’ physicality giving them the edge and Pollard a threat at flyhalf, Pote Human’s team produced a wonderful try through Springbok wing Cornal Hendricks.
The visitors worked their way into the Canes 22, and Pollard flung a long pass that bounced on the ground to Hendricks. But the man from Wellington in the Western Cape showed all his class as he got past Rayasi to slam it down in the right-hand corner.
At 24-14 down, it was still a long way back for the Bulls, and their task was made much tougher after halftime when Pollard – of all people – failed to catch a kick downfield, and the Hurricanes swooped for Rayasi to grab his second of the night.
Rayasi, though, became a bit of a villain eight minutes later when a sure try was denied to Hendricks through a deliberate knock-down.
Australian referee Nic Berry went to the TMO and eventually awarded a penalty try, as well as a yellow card to Rayasi, which made it 29-21 to the Hurricanes after 52 minutes.
The Bulls were unable to make the one-man advantage count immediately, and in fact, it was the Hurricanes who stretched their lead to nine points when Jordie Barrett slotted a penalty with about 24 minutes to go.
Human’s team, though, were not done yet. A piece of individual brilliance saw Pollard pull off a delightful cross-kick to Hendricks, and while the former Blitzbok flyer had a lot of work to do, he managed to shrug off Jordie Barrett to score an incredible five-pointer.
Hurricanes v Bulls | Super Rugby 2019 Quarter Final 2 Highlights— Super Rugby (@SuperRugby) June 22, 2019
The @Hurricanesrugby seal a semi-final spot after edging a brave @BlueBullsRugby side 35-28 in a thrilling contest in Wellington. #SuperRugby #HURvBUL #SR19Finals pic.twitter.com/LrkkGs0RcM
Bulls skipper Pollard also banged over the touchline conversion, and it was game-on at 32-28 with 20 minutes left.
With the Bulls marauding forward and having clearly gained a second wind, with the likes of Jason Jenkins, RG Snyman and Duane Vermeulen prominent, they were undone by a number of odd calls by Berry.
One particular incident saw Bulls reserve prop Simphiwe Matanzima shoulder-charged by Hurricanes hooker Asafo Aumua, which went unpunished.
Rosko Specman was also tackled into touch five metres from the tryline, while in the last few minutes, Ardie Savea was allowed to slow the ball down several times despite not supporting his own body weight.
That leeway was the final death knell in the Bulls’ coffin, as Savea won a breakdown penalty in the second-last minute inside the Hurricanes’ 22.
The resilient Bulls still didn’t give up, and a smart run to the right by Gelant saw him offload to Hendricks in space, but the two-try hero spilled the ball forward close to the red zone to end his team’s courageous performance.
The Hurricanes will now face the Crusaders in Christchurch in the first semi-final next weekend, while the Jaguares will host the winner of the last quarter-final between the Brumbies and Sharks in Buenos Aires.
Hurricanes 35 – Tries: TJ Perenara, Ben Lam, Salesi Rayasi (2). Conversions: Beauden Barrett (3). Penalties: Beauden Barrett (1), Jordie Barrett (2).
Bulls 28 – Tries: Warrick Gelant, Cornal Hendricks (2), Penalty Try. Conversions: Handre Pollard (3).@ashfakmohamed