It was a case of close but no cigar for the Hurricanes as the Bulls once again emerged victorious at Loftus Verseld, winning 19-18.
It was a case of close but no cigar for the Hurricanes as the Bulls once again emerged victorious at Loftus Verseld, winning 19-18 on Friday in an incredibly tight Super 14 encounter.
The result means the defending champions remain the only unbeaten side in the tournament with five from five, while the Hurricanes leave South African shores without a win and in seventh place – albeit temporarily – thanks to a losing bonus point.
In a tale of the two halves, the Hurricanes were on top in the first but failed to carry their momentum through to the second as the home side showed just why they are number one on the championship table.
But it so nearly could have ended in tears for Bulls supporters, and the Hurricanes will take plenty of heart from this game after leading the home side up until the 67th minute until the lethal boot of Morne Steyn edged his team in front.
The Bulls stuttered along in the opening forty minutes against a determined Hurricanes outfit who – besides a few dropped high balls – put in the bigger hits, made the passes count and kept to the basics.
Back to their counter-attacking best, the New Zealanders latched onto any piece of possession spilled over to them by their hosts and took their chances brilliantly by scoring two well-earned tries in the first half.
The Bulls were a shadow of the team that the Loftus faithful have become accustomed to seeing over the past month, with some poor decision-making as well as unforced errors allowing the Hurricanes a deserved 15-10 half-time lead – this, despite controlling the majority of territory and possession.
The hosts were caught by surprise after fourteen minutes when a strong Hurricanes' attack led to the opening try. After some excellent all-round work, the ball was spread from left to right and the Hurricanes attack completely outnumbered the Bulls defence, with the ball going through quick hands out wide for Karl Lowe to touch down.
Willie Ripia missed the conversion, but redeemed himself when the lead was extended a quarter of the way in.
The Bulls were again stunned after having to retreat on the back of another needlessly conceded penalty – Ma'a Nonu's quick tap and go enabled him to send Jeremy Thrush away under the posts.
The Hurricanes must have fancied their chances when they raced to a 12-0 lead, but as they have done in eight of their last nine Super Rugby matches, the Bulls rebounded to grab the points.
The hosts finally hit their straps on the half-hour mark when Zane Kirchner profited from a thrilling passage of rucking from the pack, taking a pass from Gerhard van den Heever to slide in on the right.
Steyn was on the money with his conversion and, following a tenth handling error of the game, the Springbok pivot reduced the gap to two before a Ripia penalty extended his side's lead at the break.
But the Bulls were a different bunch in the second half, and resorted back to their forward-orientated best by playing conservative rugby and forcing the Hurricanes into making mistakes.
The fly-half pair again exchanged penalties after the restart – Steyn's effort highlighting his outstanding form in 2010 as he crossed the 100-point mark. Errors continued to come from the Hurricanes and another crucial one, when Nonu failed to role away from a ruck, gave Steyn another chance which he duly took.
With nineteen minutes remaining, Hurricanes flank Victor Vito was sent to the bin for repeatedly infringing and it proved a crucial yellow card with the home side taking the lead for the first time on the night shortly afterward thanks to another straightforward kick from Steyn.
There was not much fight left from the visitors thereafter as the Bulls held out for the gripping victory. But the close win alone shouldn't plaster over the cracks in the tournament leader's game, and it seems just a matter of time before an opponent can sustain their effort and burst the Bulls' bubble.
Man of the match: For the Hurricanes, Conrad Smith was the stand-out player in the back-line while Michael Paterson shone in in the forwards. For the Bulls, Fourie du Preez kept a cool head throughout and lock Victor Matfield deserves special praise for an accomplished performance in his 100th Super Rugby match. But we going for Bulls hooker Gary Botha. The Bulls workhorse reminded us just why he was the back-up hooker to John Smit all those years ago and may just find a place in the South Africa set-up once again if he keeps this up.
Pens: Steyn 4
Tries: Lowe, Thrush
Pens: Ripia 2
Bulls: 15 Zane Kirchner, 14 Gerhard van den Heever, 13 Stephan Dippenaar, 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/Rossouw de Klerk, 18 Flip van der Merwe, 19 Derick KuÃ¼n, 20 Jacques-Louis Potgieter, 21 Jaco van der Westhuyzen, 22 Pedrie Wannenburg.
Hurricanes: 15 Andre Taylor, 14 Tamati Ellison, 13 Conrad Smith, 12 Ma'a Nonu, 11 Alapati Leiua, 10 Willie Ripia, 9 Tyson Keats, 8 Rodney So'oialo, 7 Karl Lowe, 6 Victor Vito, 5 Michael Paterson, 4 Jeremy Thrush, 3 Neemia Tialata, 2 Andrew Hore (c), 1 John Schwalger.
Replacements: 16 Dane Coles, 17 Jacob Ellison, 18 Bryn Evans, 19 Nick Crosswell, 20 Piri Weepu, 21 Aaron Cruden, 22 David Smith.
Referee: Nathan Pearce (Australia)
Assistant referees: Steve Walsh (Australia), Stefan Breytenbach (South Africa)
Television match official: Shaun Veldsman (South Africa)