The Bulls only had themselves to blame as poor discipline cost them dearly in Friday night’s 31-23 United Rugby Championship defeat to Edinburgh.
Referee Chris Busby issued a red card to co-captain Marcell Coetzee, for a dangerous tackle on Pierre Schoeman, early in the second half, which saw the visitors relinquish their 13-11 halftime lead almost immediately.
It was a controversial decision as Schoeman was a bit lower than Coetzee, so a yellow card may have been a fairer call.
It went from bad to worse for the Pretoria outfit as No 8 Cameron Hanekom received a yellow card a minute later for collapsing an Edinburgh maul, with the hosts scoring from the resultant lineout drive by hooker Ewan Ashman.
The turnaround was complete in the 49th minute when SA-born wing Duhan van der Merwe dived over in spectacular fashion at the left corner flag to put Edinburgh 21-13 ahead, and they were never in real danger of losing from that point onwards.
But it was the Bulls who had the upper-hand in the opening exchanges. There was a fierce scrum battle between four South African props – Springboks Gerhard Steenekamp and Wilco Louw for the Bulls, and Schoeman and WP Nel for Edinburgh – with both packs not giving an inch.
The Bulls, though, dominated the breakdowns as they timed their steals on the ground perfectly to win a number of penalties.
They converted their pressure into points in the ninth minute as centre Stedman Gans burst through a few tackles before Johan Goosen’s grubber was fumbled by Edinburgh fullback Blair Kinghorn when put under pressure by Sergeal Petersen.
Bulls fullback Devon Williams dived onto the loose ball to score the opening try, and the visitors were well on the way at the DAM Health Stadium.
But Goosen missed a poor penalty effort at the posts, and later also fluffed a long-range drop goal that wasted possession.
The Scottish side pulled things back through two penalties by flyhalf Ben Healy, before Goosen eventually knocked two through the uprights to make it 13-6.
Coach Jake White, though, would have been frustrated by two attacking penalty kicks missing touch, and Edinburgh reduced the deficit to two points through a second Ashman driving maul try.
Goosen left the field just before halftime for what looked like a head knock, with Jaco van der Walt coming on at flyhalf.
But then Coetzee and Hanekom’s cards rocked the South African franchise, and it was downhill from there as Edinburgh carried out their renowned attacking game as they stretched the defence from side to side.
Powerful No 8 Viliame Mata eventually forced his way over with about 15 minutes left, but the Bulls never gave up the fight as flank Elrigh Louw barged through weak tackles off a five-metre tap penalty to keep them in the game at 28-20.
A yellow card to Mata with seven minutes left even things up at 14 men per side, and Van der Walt slotted a three-pointer to ensure a gripping finish.
But despite a couple of thrilling Bulls attacks, Edinburgh kept their composure in the closing stages, and another yellow card – to wing Petersen for a deliberate knockdown – in the final minute ended any chance of a fairytale triumph.
And just to rub salt into the Bulls’ wounds, Healy booted over a penalty in the final act of the game – with the ball glancing off the left upright – to deny White’s team a losing bonus point in a game that they should have won if they had avoided conceding three cards.
The Lions nearly pulled off an upset in Belfast on Friday night, but after leading 14-7 at halftime, they lost 24-17 to Ulster, who moved to the top of the log on 18 points, one ahead of Edinburgh.
The Bulls dropped down from first to third on 15.
Edinburgh 31 – Tries: Ewan Ashman (2), Duhan van der Merwe, Viliame Mata. Conversion: Ben Healy (1). Penalties: Healy (3).
Bulls 23 – Tries: Devon Williams, Elrigh Louw. Conversions: Johan Goosen (1), Jaco van der Walt (1). Penalties: Goosen (2), Van der Walt (1).
Ulster 24 – Tries: James Hume, Jacob Stockdale, Rob Herring. Conversions: Nathan Doak (3). Penalty: John Cooney (1).
Lions 17 – Tries: Richard Kriel, Hanru Sirgel. Conversions: Sanele Nohamba (2). Penalty: Nohamba (1).