Cape Town – It might have been a near-perfect opening 25 minutes for a new-look Bulls team, but coach Jake White took much greater pleasure out of how they defended their line in a frantic last 10 minutes to pull off an almost unbelievable 42-36 Champions Cup victory over Lyon on Saturday night.
White picked a virtual B team on Friday, where none of the starting XV had featured in last week’s URC win over Cardiff, and even diehard Bulls fans at Loftus Versfeld would have been hard-pressed to expect that line-up to get past a well-established outfit like Lyon.
But with senior figures like Nizaam Carr, Bismarck du Plessis and captain Morne Steyn leading the way, the Bulls ran up a 28-0 lead in a heady first half through tries to wing Sibongile Novuka, a brace by scrumhalf Bernard van der Linde – who was the Man of the Match – and flank Carr.
Lyon, though, pounced on a few defensive errors and fought back to 42-36 after Australian centre Kyle Godwin scored in the 75th minute.
The French club had all the momentum, but despite playing for another 10 minutes as the game continued after the hooter due to a number of penalties, the Bulls managed to hold on in those helter-skelter closing stages to complete a wonderful triumph.
“People spoke about a B team, and it was good motivation for those young guys as well. The bench, although I put them on late, there were five forwards who were 22 or younger, and two backs around that age, and that pressure… The fact that we could lose right at the end,” White said.
“I don’t want to sound arrogant, but as I told my wife now, we did enough to win the game, and I don’t think it would have been fair if we had to lose.
“I am very proud of the way we played. Yes, we made mistakes and brought them back into the game, but again, this team trained together for three weeks and it was always the plan to play them in this game and give them a bit of a chance.
“The fact that they got five points against a good Lyon side in the Champions Cup, even though it’s at home, is unbelievable for us.
“That was my talk to them now. I’m very happy about the win, and the way we played in that first 25 minutes was some of the best rugby we’ve played since we’ve been together.
“But the last five minutes just showed me a lot… We defended, Jan-Hendrik (Wessels) went into touch and the hooter had almost finished and he thought the game was over.
“Then they win the lineout and get a penalty, then we defend, defend, defend. We get a kick-through from Keagan (Johannes), and all of a sudden, they are back in our half again.
There’s a high tackle by (Wandisile) Simelane, play someone early in the air, and we just made it more and more difficult. But to defend and keep them out for five minutes like that, I just think it was a phenomenal effort.
“As I said, one lock was 20, the tighthead’s 20, the hooker is 21, the other lock is 22, WJ Steenkamp is 22, Keagan is 23, Bernard is 22… It’s phenomenal what those young guys did at the end. That is just going to make them so much better.
“I am very proud of the win, and the last five minutes showed me a lot about the culture and understanding of winning at a club like this.”
White is likely to turn to the Bulls ‘A team’ for next Saturday’s clash against the Exeter Chiefs in England (3pm SA time kickoff), but could opt to mix up the selection for upcoming URC games against the Stormers in Cape Town on December 23 and the Sharks in Durban on December 31.
The Bulls boss, though, stated that lock Jacques du Plessis (broken hand) and centre Marco Jansen van Vuren (knee) are set to be sidelined for the next few weeks.
Bulls 42 – Tries: Sibongile Novuka, Bernard van der Linde (2), Nizaam Carr, Stravino Jacobs, Chris Smit. Conversions: Morné Steyn (6).
Lyon 36 – Tries: Arno Botha (2), Liam Coltman, Ethan Dumortier, Kyle Godwin. Conversions: Leo Berdeu (4). Penalty: Berdeu (1).