The Bulls beat the Crusaders 39-24 in their Super 14 semi on Saturday, meaning the home side return to Soweto next week to defend their title.
The Bulls beat the Crusaders 39-24 in their Super 14 semi-final on Saturday, which means the home side will return to Soweto next week to defend their title.
The setting at Orlando Stadium was set for an epic semi-final between two quality outfits, but only one team pitched up as the Bulls outmuscled their Kiwi visitors to book their second Super 14 final in as many years.
If the Crusaders thought playing away from the daunting Loftus Versfled would favour their chances, they were horribly mistaken as the hosts – cheered on by a sea of blue jerseys – dug deep and produced the goods to once again deny the New Zealanders a shot at an eighth Super Rugby title.
The weekend off taken by the Bulls in Round 14 proved to be a wise call by coach Frans Ludeke as his charges looked more battle-hardened than ever before – piling on unrelenting pressure towards the Crusaders, who ultimately had no answer for the home side's assault.
A thirteen-point half-time lead (23-10) proved too much for the men in red and black to catch, though credit to Richie McCaw and his troops for making a fist of it after the break.
The Crusaders made no secret of their intent to hit up in the wide channels, and they tried valiantly, only to be repelled time after time. The Bulls' defensive success stemmed from their ability to cut down the Crusaders' time and space through an up-and-in system. They therefore found none of the joy they had at Loftus a fortnight ago, when they cut the Bulls to shreds.
On attack the defending champs were a mixture of brilliant and ordinary, but enough of the former to attain the result they desired, with their shortcomings plastered over by the excellence of their goal-kicker Morne Steyn, who missed just one of nine attempts.
Both sides scored three tries apiece but Steyn, who contributed 24 points for the hosts, proved the difference. And in truth the South Africans never looked like losing control of the game from the moment Pierre Spies' try gave them a third-minute lead.
The Bulls finished the regular season top of the table, with their opponents in fourth, and were quick to assert their superiority. Spies capitalised on some quick turnover ball to touch down under the posts. Steyn added the conversion to put the Crusaders on the back foot.
There seemed to be just cause for the Bulls to be confident of a second try two minutes later, but a seemingly legitimate Danie Rossouw touchdown was denied by the TMO to earn the Crusaders a reprieve.
Steyn slotted over a penalty as the Bulls moved 10-0 in front, but New Zealand captain Richie McCaw dragged the visitors back into the game. McCaw merged from a maul with the ball and crossed the whitewash with Dan Carter adding the extras.
Within three minutes, though, the Bulls had their second try, full-back Zane Kirchner kicking ahead to dot down after the visitors had failed to deal with his high ball. Steyn's accuracy with the boot continued as he slotted over the conversion and a second penalty to put the home side 20-7 in front after 19 minutes.
Carter slotted over a penalty of his own but hooked a long-range attempt to the left of the posts before Steyn kicked his third penalty of the half from almost 60 metres to restore the Bulls' 13-point advantage.
The Springbok playmaker missed for the first time on the stroke of half-time, though, and Sean Maitland scored the Crusaders' second try of the match following a well-executed scrum move. Carter's conversion closing the gap to six points.
Steyn added another penalty to take the Bulls' advantage beyond a converted try, missing a monster drop goal attempt three minutes later.
Carter missed with another penalty attempt and, in the 63rd minute, scrum-half Fourie du Preez broke around the blindside and went over in the corner to all but seal the victory for the Bulls.
Steyn added the conversion and two more penalties to take the score to 39-17.
Lock Sam Whitelock touched down for the Crusaders' third try in the 79th minute, and Carter added the conversion, but the Bulls had already wrapped up their place in the final.
Man of the match: Bulls scrum-half Fourie du Preez destroyed the Crusaders' hopes thanks to his magical try in the corner to give his side a crucial fourteen-point buffer and it proved a mortal blow in which the visitors were unable to recover from.
Tries: Spies, Kirchner
Cons: Steyn 2
Pens: Steyn 6
Tries: McCaw, Maitland, S Whitelock
Cons: Carter 3
Bulls: 15 Zane Kirchner, 14 Jaco van der Westhuyzen, 13 Jaco Pretorius, 12 Wynand Olivier, 11 Francois Hougaard, 10 MornÃ© Steyn, 9 Fourie du Preez, 8 Pierre Spies, 7 Dewald Potgieter, 6 Deon Stegmann, 5 Victor Matfield (c), 4 Danie Rossouw, 3 Werner Kruger, 2 Gary Botha, 1 GurthrÃ¶ Steenkamp.
Replacements: 16 Bandise Maku, 17 Bees Roux, 18 Flip van der Merwe, 19 Derick KuÃ¼n, 20 Jacques-Louis Potgieter, 21 Stephan Dippenaar, 22 Pedrie Wannenburg.
Crusaders: 15 Colin Slade, 14 Sean Maitland, 13 Robbie Fruean, 12 Daniel Bowden, 11 Zac Guildford, 10 Daniel Carter, 9 Andy Ellis, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Richie McCaw (c), 6 George Whitelock, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Brad Thorn, 3 Ben Franks, 2 Ti'i Paulo, 1 Owen Franks.
Replacements: 16 Daniel Perrin, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Chris Jack, 19 Thomas Waldrom, 20 Kahn Fotuali'i, 21 Tim Bateman, 22 Jared Payne.
Referee: Stuart Dickinson
By Dave Morris