PRETORIA – The feeling of optimism that had swept through Loftus Versfeld after the Bulls’ win against the Hurricanes last weekend was never going to be enough for a repeat performance a week later against the Lions.
It was always going to take a special performance by the three-time Super Rugby champions to knock the rampant Lions off their perch, and that extraordinary performance was lacking in all departments on Saturday at Loftus.
Instead, it was the Lions that put on yet another dominant display of total rugby, starting by gaining ascendancy at the set-piece before unleashing their running game to emerge 49-35 victors.
This was almost vintage Lions, and the nearest performance to the team of the last two years that have been able to make successive Super Rugby finals effortlessly.
And it was the experience of keeping their best rugby for the big occasions that came
to the fore as the men from across the Jukskei River were never rattled by the pre-match hype of the awakening of the sleeping Bulls giant.
Instead, they showed who the unquestionable beast of South African rugby is.
Over and above planting the seed of doubt by milking a scrum penalty early in the game against what up to now had been perceived a powerful Bulls scrum, it was the unrelenting lineout drives that ultimately won the game for the Lions.
Five of the Lions seven tries were a direct result of the Bulls’ inability to deal with the rumbling of the Lions maul from the lineouts and try as they may, it was always fait accompli every time the Lions got a penalty and kicked for the corner.
It was from those mauls again that the Lions were able to see off two of the back-peddling Bulls in Coenraad van Vuuren and Nic de Jager, and their yellow cards midway through the second half saw the Lions run in two tries.
The first of those was a penalty try for collapsing the maul, and the second a wonderful finish by wing Sylvian Mahuza.
The final nail in the coffin came when a probing Ross Cronjé was the recipient of a basketball-style dunk pass from captain Warren Whiteley – who had plucked the ball out of the air at the back of the lineout – for the visitors to open up an unassailable 28 point gap with only 10 minutes remaining in the game.
“We are very grateful, we want to score tries and those seven tries were good. Pity about the ones we couldn’t score,” said Lions coach Swys de Bruin.
“Hats off to coach Phillip Lemmer (Lions forwards coach) and the forwards, that went according to plan. We did target those lineouts, I won’t lie, we did.”
The Bulls also aided the Lions in getting over the advantage line by easily falling off tackles with their kamikaze style defence, which would have been effective if it was not driven by red mist.
But the Bulls weren’t as awful as the scoreline suggested, as they looked dangerous the few times they kept the ball in hand.
One of those magical moments came in the first half when Handré Pollard – who started at inside centre and took over the captaincy following the late withdrawal of Burger Odendaal – punted a cross kick for wing Johnny Kotze to gather and dive over in the corner.
As much as the Bulls did most of the chasing for the better part of the game, they managed to finish strongly with two consolation tries by Lizo Gqoboka and Travis Ismaiel to add some respectability to the final score.
Bulls 35 – Tries: Johnny Kotze, Handré Pollard, Lizo Gqoboka, Travis Ismaiel. Conversions: Marnitz Boshoff (1), Francois Brummer (2). Penalties: Boshoff (3).
Lions 49 – Tries: Ruan Dreyer, Jacques van Rooyen, Marvin Orie, Malcolm Marx, Penalty Try, Sylvian Mahuza, Ross Cronjé. Conversions: Elton Jantjies (6).