Bulls edge out Crusaders in thriller
May 7, 2010
The Bulls' Francois Hougaard celebrates scoring the match-winning score at Loftus Versfeld
© Getty Images
The Bulls booked a home draw in this year's Super 14 semi-finals with a dramatic 40-35 victory over the Crusaders at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria.
A controversial try from winger Francois Hougaard in the final act of a pulsating clash saw the Bulls cement their place at the top of the table and dent the post-season hopes of their New Zealand rivals. Trailing 35-33 and down to 14-men as the siren sounded, Bulls fly-half Morne Steyn saw a drop goal attempt blocked but the home side rallied once more to work the ball wide to Hougaard who pounced for the match-winning score. Steyn set the seal on the victory with the conversion as Crusaders captain Richie McCaw led the protests against the try that they claimed included a knock-on from the hosts. The assistant referee ruled that a Crusaders player had knocked the ball back and the score stood although replays suggested the ball may have come off Bulls replacement Bandise Maku as he collided with the Crusaders' Owen Franks.
Tries from Brad Thorn, Andy Ellis and Sean Maitland and the boot of Dan Carter had seen the Crusaders take control of the contest in the first half that also saw Bulls lock Danie Rossouw sin-binned for a high tackle. But back came the hosts, chasing their 18th straight victory, to edge themselves in front thanks to tries from Hougaard and skipper Victor Matfield and the kicking exploits of Steyn. The see-saw nature of the clash continued in the second half with a further Crusaders try from hooker Ti'I Paulo ensuring a bonus point but the contest turned into a kicking duel between Steyn and Carter with the All Blacks No.10 kicking his side into the lead before the hosts, reduced to 14-men again after the sin-binning of Gerhard van den Heever, conjured a great escape. The Bulls' semi-final will be played at Orlando Stadium in Johannesburg due to the fact their Loftus Versfeld home will be in use for the Fifa World Cup.
The Crusaders came out firing but their enthusiasm got the better of them when tight-head Ben Franks hammered Bulls lock Danie Rossouw. Referee Marius Jonker was not happy with the tackle and reversed a penalty that Steyn duly landed from long range.
There was no let up from either side with the Crusaders turning down a simple shot at the posts in favour of the quick tap but their execution let them down and they soon found themselves on their own line repelling the Bulls. Turnover ball in midfield then sparked the next Crusaders attack with Chris Jack, Thorn and Paulo gobbling up ground inside the Bulls' half before Thorn took the return pass to crash over for the opening try. Carter slotted the difficult conversion to cement his side's lead.
Crusaders loose-head Wyatt Crockett was penalised for not binding at scrum time on the quarter hour and Steyn stepped up for another testing kick - this time from just inside his own half - but distance proved no barrier to the Springbok who made the kick with ease. The Crusaders were soon back on the attack and the quick feet of Carter opened up the Bulls' defence with ease and a stiff hand-off followed before he fed Ellis for an easy score. Carter added the extras to extend his side's lead and they were handed another boost moments later when a second high tackle from Rossouw saw him sent to the sin-bin. But the Bulls responded with the next score - a sensational drop goal from Steyn who landed an opportunistic strike from just inside the Crusaders' half.
Not to be deterred the Crusaders powered forward again and some superb movement and passing from fullback Colin Slade and Guildford created the space for Maitland to slide over in the corner for a simple yet impressive score. Carter blotted his copybook by pulling the conversion wide of the posts and the fly-half barely had time to rue his miss before he was in the thick of the action again. Bulls scrum-half Fourie du Preez scavenged the ball on his own 22 before releasing Hougaard who showed an incredible turn of speed to bedazzle Carter before powering down the touchline to score. The conversion was too much for Steyn but his side had more than weathered the loss of Roussow.
The Bulls continued to recover their composure and turnover ball eventually drew another penalty from the visitors but Steyn was unable to close the gap. But he soon had another opportunity when the Crusaders were penalised for wheeling the scrum and this time he made no mistake. The elusive Hougaard sparked the next break down the short side before the ball was recycled to hooker Gary Botha who offloaded superbly to Rossouw who in turn found his locking partner Matfield who had enough momentum to carry his long limbs over for the try. Steyn's conversion gave the home side a little breathing room and brought an end to a highly entertaining half.
There was no let up in the pace of the game after the break with the Crusaders handed the first opportunity to score but Carter was unable to make the Bulls pay for an indiscretion - pushing his penalty wide of the posts. But the Crusaders were soon knocking on the door again and Paolo was rewarded for his persistence with a try under the posts having shrugged off the tackle off Botha and fullback Zane Kirchner. The Crusaders had to wait for confirmation from the Television Match Official but there was no doubt and the try-scoring bonus point was in the bag as Carter slotted the simple extras.
The Bulls opted to keep it tight on their next visit to the Crusaders' 22 but the visitors soaked up the pressure and eventually snaffled the ball before Guildford put boot to ball. But back came the ball and a high tackle from Richie McCaw on Gerhard van den Heever handed Steyn and easy three points that gave the Bulls the lead once more.
A drop goal from Carter edged his side into a narrow lead as the game entered the last quarter before Van den Heever found some space inside the Crusaders' 22 and danced over the line only to be held up by a superb tackle from Guildford. The Bulls looked to probe again following the scrum and drew another penalty against McCaw for interference that Steyn kicked to restore his side's lead.
Handling errors returned to haunt the Crusaders, with Slade spilling the ball inside his own 22, to give the Bulls the chance to close the game out but solid defence forced the mistake from centre Jacques -Louis Potgieter. The Crusaders returned to their running game as the game entered the final stages and spear tackle from Van den Heever on Crusaders replacement Tim Bateman drew the game's second yellow card and Carter hammered home the advantage by also slotting the resulting penalty to give his side a narrow two-point lead with just over five minutes on the clock.
The battling Bulls showed their class by driving straight back up field where the cool-headed Steyn slotted his second drop goal to swing the game back in the home side's favour. But the Bulls immediately handed the Crusaders the chance to seemingly win the game when replacement Derick Kuun was penalised for not releasing. Carter delivered once again from just inside his own half to edge his side towards a famous victory.
But there was another twist in the tale with the Bulls' forwards earning a scrum on the Crusaders' 22 and from there Pedrie Wannenburg took the ball into contact and did just enough to win the next scrum. As time ran out, Steyn saw his latest drop goal attempt charged down but the Bulls streamed forward and the ball was worked wide to replacement Maku who inadvertantly found Hougaard for the match-defining score.
Ireland coach Joe Schmidt won the tactical battle and set his team on course for a shot at the Grand Slam. Tom Hamilton reports from Dublin
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