Cape Town — Don’t let the final result fool you: the Bulls will wonder what might have been if they were able to score after being held up twice over the tryline in Saturday’s 44-14 Champions Cup defeat to the Exeter Chiefs at Sandy Park.
In bitterly cold conditions, the Bulls — who had left their entire first-choice side back in Pretoria to prepare for next Friday’s URC clash against the Stormers — gave a solid account of themselves in the opening half-an-hour.
But despite their forwards manning up defensively, with the likes of Bismarck du Plessis and Nizaam Carr to the fore, the visitors got onto the wrong side of French referee Mathieu Raynal’s whistle, and were ultimately dispatched by a powerful Exeter outfit.
Time and again Du Plessis was penalised at the breakdowns by Raynal when contesting for the ball, but the referee didn’t always make the correct decisions, with the veteran hooker unlucky to be blown up on a few occasions.
But the worst call of the half came in the 24th minute, when a well-set Bulls lineout drive saw Du Plessis charging towards the tryline.
Just when he was about to dot the ball down, replacement Exeter centre Solomone Kata came in from the side and an offside position to wrap up the No 2 and kill the ball on the ground.
Raynal said the ball was held up, and awarded a goal-line drop-out to the home side when a penalty try and yellow card would have been the more appropriate sanctions.
A few minutes later, the Bulls were again on the attack, with lively wing Stravino Jacobs stepping his way through the Exeter defence, but they were again held up over the whitewash.
With the score at 15-7 to Exeter — following early tries by flank Dave Ewers and captain Luke Cowan-Dickie, in reply to Jacobs’ five-pointer, which was set up by Carr’s offload and Wandisile Simelane’s electric line-break — the Bulls could have taken the lead by the 27th minute.
Instead, with tighthead prop Jacques van Rooyen being heavily penalised in the scrums, Exeter roared back to life, with England hooker Cowan-Dickie getting his second maul try and Test centre Henry Slade finishing off a flowing move.
Flyhalf Joe Simmonds slotted a penalty as well to make it 32-7 at halftime, and the game was over as a contest.
The Bulls, though, kept going and made a strong start to the second half, but they were again porous in their defence to allow Cowan-Dickie to grab his hat trick from a five-metre tap penalty.
Bulls captain Morne Steyn finally unlocked the Exeter backline with an outstanding chip over the top from a lineout, and the ball bounced perfectly for centre Chris Barend Smit to score.
Kata then benefited from a sharp surge by Slade to claim the sixth try in the 56th minute and put the result beyond doubt.
Bulls coach Jake White will be a bit disappointed that his team were unable to snatch a four-try bonus point in the end, as they had a couple of scoring opportunities in the final quarter.
But he will be satisfied that an under-strength team managed to put up a reasonable fight against a top-quality Exeter combination, and that his best match-23 don’t have to fear any European team away from home going forward.
Exeter 44 – Tries: Dave Ewers, Luke Cowan-Dickie (3), Henry Slade, Solomone Kata. Conversions: Joe Simmonds (4). Penalties: Simmonds (2).
Bulls 14 – Tries: Stravino Jacobs, Chris Barend Smit. Conversions: Morne Steyn (2).