JOHANNESBURG – The Lions are back in the Super Rugby playoffs – for the third year running – as they swept aside a gutsy, but ultimately outclassed Bulls side here in their final league game on Saturday.
After trailing 12-0 early on, the Lions scored 38 unanswered points to finish second on the overall log and guarantee themselves a home quarter-final – next week against the Jaguares – and should they win that, a home semi-final, too.
In the end the Lions finished the league phase with nine wins from 16 games; the Bulls six wins and 12th spot.
It was an all-action start with both teams giving the ball plenty of air as they attacked each other from all parts and it was just a matter of time before someone found a hole in the defences.
And that person was Bulls flyhalf Manie Libbok who ran in under the posts from 70 metres out to give the Bulls a deserved lead after eight minutes.
It was then the turn of Jesse Kriel to power his way over the tryline, avoiding two defenders from 20 out, after Marco van Staden had made a scintillating steal at a breakdown.
The Bulls number six had a stunning game, making several turnovers, but it wasn’t only he in the early exchanges who caused problems for the Lions.
The likes of Libbok, Warrick Gelant, playing at centre, Pierre Schoeman and Thembelani Bholi, got stuck in too.
But once the home team had settled they took charge of the encounter and enjoyed the majority of the possession and territory for the rest of the half.
Ruan Combrinck scored in the right corner to get his team going and then the Bulls started to implode somewhat, giving away penalties by the dozen.
It allowed the Lions to kick the ball into the corners and set up several lineouts and pile all the pressure on the visitors.
The Bulls though did well to repel the driving mauls but they could do nothing to stop a charging Malcolm Marx barge over a few phases after a quick-tap penalty in the 32nd minute.
With the scores level at 12-12, the Bulls then lost Schoeman to the sin-bin for a shoulder hit and it allowed the home team to take a firmer grip on the contest.
Camped in Bulls territory, the Lions scored a third try on the stroke of halftime; Courtnall Skosan showing off his finishing skills on the blindside.
The Bulls were their own worst enemy, giving away 10 first-half penalties to the Lions’ one, and they only improved marginally in the second period.
The Lions’ class, experience and greater need for victory saw them power on and wrap the game up in four minutes midway through the second half.
HIGHLIGHTS: 2018 Super Rugby Week 19: Lions v Bulls@LionsRugbyCo defeated @BlueBullsRugby 38-12 at Emirates Park on Saturday and secured themselves not only a home play-off final but a home semi-final as well. #LetsUnite #LionsWay #SuperRugby #Week19 #LIOvBUL pic.twitter.com/P3OUtZaMZb
First they were awarded a penalty try after the Bulls infringed at a scrum in the 63rd minute and moments later Combrinck got his second after collecting an Elton Jantjies kick into space and going over in the corner.
At 31-12 up the game was all but done, but the home team scored a sixth try after the hooter had sounded; replacement Aphiwe Dyantyi beating Jamba Ulengo to the ball inside the in-goal area.
Lions 38 – Tries: Ruan Combrinck (2), Malcolm Marx, Courtnall Skosan, Penalty Try, Aphiwe Dyantyi. Conversions: Elton Jantjies (2), Combrinck (1).
Bulls 12 – Tries: Manie Libbok, Jesse Kriel. Conversions: Libbok (1).