Cape Town – The Bulls took a big step forward in regaining the respect of their supporters with a spirited display, but it was just not enough as a few questionable decisions by the match officials also contributed to their 32-23 defeat to Ulster in Belfast on Saturday night.
A late controversial yellow card against Bismarck du Plessis and penalty by replacement Ulster scrumhalf John Cooney were the final daggers in the heart of the Pretoria side as they were denied a well-deserved bonus point, which saw them leave the Kingspan Stadium empty-handed.
Jake White’s team will now have to win their two remaining United Rugby Championship games against Zebre and Leinster at Loftus Versfeld to have a chance of making the playoffs, but they will rue not completing a determined performance with a victory over Ulster.
With Springbok stars Kurt-Lee Arendse and Canan Moodie in full flight, the Bulls seemed to found their mojo once again after months of inconsistent performances.
Their patience and variety on attack was evident, they mixed up their kicking strategy well, and the forwards brought real venom to the physical exchanges to disrupt the much-vaunted Ulster pack.
Bok No 8 and Ulster captain Duane Vermeulen hardly had a chance to charge at his former teammates as it was opposite number Elrigh Louw, flanks Cyle Brink and Marco van Staden, as well as locks Ruan Nortjé and Ruan Vermaak who made real ground with ball-in-hand.
Scrumhalf Zak Burger also brought some spark with his quick service from the base, and whenever Arendse and Moodie got involved, the Ulster defence were left scrambling.
An early defensive error by David Kriel, who had shot out of the line too early, led to Ulster wing Rob Baloucoune scoring in the third minute, but the Bulls kept their cool to claim a 20-12 halftime lead.
Arendse was in red-hot form, and after he made a devastating run of his own in the 17th minute, it was his good mate Moodie who came up with the moment of the match to create the first Bulls try.
The No 14 got a pass from Arendse on the counter-attack and produced a lovely little chip, and the ball bounced back into his hands, and Moodie put the Bulls fullback away for a brilliant touchdown.
But then the first major call that went against the visitors saw the TMO calling on referee Craig Evans to overturn a penalty to the Bulls after he felt that Marco van Staden had cleared out an Ulster player too far beyond the ruck, and from the subsequent kick that set up a lineout in the 22, the home side scored via hooker Tom Stewart.
The Bulls hit back, though, when a thrilling passage of play and multiple phases eventually saw Burger dive over, and a Chris Smith penalty took them into an eight-point halftime advantage.
But the South Africans were their own worse enemies from the second half kickoff when Burger’s box-kick resulted in an offside penalty to Ulster, and Stewart scored his second five-pointer – with No 8 Louw having also conceded a yellow card for collapsing an earlier drive.
The Bulls didn’t stop having a go at the Ulster defence, and after a series of carries in the opposition’s half, centre Cornal Hendricks was penalised for not releasing after he felt he wasn’t held in the tackle.
That man Stewart then grabbed his hat-trick in the 55th minute, and Ulster were 26-20 ahead.
The Bulls had enough opportunities to clinch the victory in the final quarter, but were on the wrong side of referee Evans’ whistle as they conceded a few scrum and breakdown penalties.
Smith reduced the deficit to three points with a 63rd-minute penalty, but Ulster scrumhalf Nathan Doak slotted his own three-pointer with seven minutes to go.
Then Du Plessis was unlucky to be yellow-carded when he cleaned-out Ulster flyhalf Billy Burns at a ruck, with Welsh TMO Jon Mason getting involved once more and referee Evans ruling that the Bulls hooker had not wrapped his arms around Burns, despite the TV replays suggesting otherwise.
The Bulls had one last attack in them, and made it into the Ulster half, but then the almost inevitable breakdown penalty was dished out by Evans for a side entry.
White, though, will take heart from the performance ahead of next Sunday’s Champions Cup last-16 encounter against Toulouse in France.
Ulster 32 – Tries: Rob Baloucoune, Tom Stewart (3). Conversions: Nathan Doak (3). Penalties: Doak (1), John Cooney (1).
Bulls 23 – Tries: Kurt-Lee Arendse, Zak Burger. Conversions: Chris Smith (2). Penalties: Smith (3).