In a titanic Super 14 battle between two die-hard South African outfits, the Bulls emerged winners and remain in finals contention following their 29-20 win over the Cheetahs in Pretoria on Saturday.
The Bulls dominated the key territory battle but failed to finish many opportunities. It was paramount to the home side winning as well as taking maximum points, but while the Bulls looked lacklustre they will be content with the victory.
The Cheetahs came close to upsetting the Bulls' semi-final party with some outstanding defence, but eventually collapsed in the dying stages of the second half.
Springbok winger Bryan Habana scored the crucial bonus-point try just seconds before the final whistle which put the Bulls at the top of the Super 14 standings going into the final round next weekend when the 2007 champions travel to Durban to face the Sharks.
The Bulls knew before the kick-off that a bonus point victory would take them to the top of the table following the Chiefs' 16-8 defeat of the Hurricanes earlier that day. They therefore tried to create a high number of try-scoring opportunities whenever they had the chance, and the match was an open, fast paced contest.
Cheetahs' scrum-half Tewis de Bruyn opened the visitors' account with a try following a quick-tap penalty in the fifth minute but seven minutes later Habana fielded a poor kick from the visitors and ran like a gazelle before putting Akona Ndungane away for the Bulls' first try.
The visitors wasted no time and within three minutes they regained the lead with former Springbok Hendro Scholtz storming through, after a quick Meyer Bosman throw-in caught the Bulls unaware.
Fly-half Naas Olivier - who converted both tries - added a penalty in the 23rd minute to take the Cheetahs into a 15-7 lead but the tournamenr basement dwellers had to see the last ten minutes of the first half with fourteen men due to Scholtz's yellow card following a high tackle on Habana.
With Scholtz in the bin, the Bulls launched attack after attack in the visitors' 22, but the Cheetahs defended their try-line like Spartans and the upshot was that the Bulls could not score a single point with Scholtz on the sideline.
The Cheetahs conceded another yellow card within the last few seconds of the first half and with Wian du Preez the next to see yellow, MornÃ© Steyn kicked his first penalty to take the Bulls into the half-time sheds with the score 15-10 in the visitors' favour.
With the Cheetahs swiftly extended their lead to 20-10 thanks to a breakaway try in the 47th minute by speedster Jongi Nokwe, but Chiliboy Ralepelle replied in adequate manner with the Bulls' second try in the 53rd minute to make the score 20-17.
The Cheetahs conceded their third yellow card in the 65th minute as a result of an illegal tackle by De Bruyn on Ndungane, but the World Cup-winning winger quickly recovered and moments later went over for the Bulls' third try to take the Bulls into a 22-20 lead.
With the Bulls leading for the first time in the match, they continued to hunt down the elusive fourth try. After some nerve-racking moments in the last ten minutes, Habana intercepted a pass from Meyer Bosman and dived over to clinch the match.
The Cheetahs played their hearts out - they defended as if their lives depended on it and gave it their all for 80 minutes but during the closing stages the Bulls' patience on attack paid off and the end product was a very impressive bonus-point victory.
Tries: Ndungane 2, Ralepelle, Habana
Cons: Steyn 3
Tries: De Bruyn, Scholtz, Nokwe
Yellow cards: Hendro Scholtz (Cheetahs, 29 - foul play, playing a player off the ball), Wian du Preez (Cheetahs, 40 - professional foul, killing the ball on the ground), Tewis de Bruyn (Cheetahs, 64 - foul play, spear tackle)
Bulls: 15 Zane Kirchner, 14 Akona Ndungane, 13 Jaco Pretorius, 12 Wynand Olivier, 11 Bryan Habana, 10 MornÃ© Steyn, 9 Heini Adams, 8 Pierre Spies, 7 Dewald Potgieter, 6 Deon Stegmann, 5 Victor Matfield (c), 4 Bakkies Botha, 3 Werner Kruger, 2 Derick KuÃ¼n, 1 GurthrÃ¶ Steenkamp.
Replacements: 16 Chiliboy Ralepelle, 17 Rayno Gerber, 18 Danie Rossouw, 19 Pedrie Wannenburg, 20 Francois Hougaard, 21 Burton Francis, 22 JP Nel.
Cheetahs: 15 Hennie Daniller, 14 Danwel Demas, 13 CornÃ© Uys, 12 Meyer Bosman, 11 Jongi Nokwe, 10 Naas Olivier, 9 Tewis de Bruyn, 8 Hendro Scholtz, 7 Juan Smith (c), 6 Heinrich BrÃ¼ssow, 5 David de Villiers, 4 Wayne van Heerden, 3 Kobus Calldo, 2 Adriaan Strauss, 1 Wian du Preez.
Replacements: 16 Richardt Strauss, 17 WP Nel, 18 Nico Breedt, 19 Kabamba Floors, 20 Sarel Pretorius, 21 JW Jonker, 22 Fabian Juries.
Referee: Stuart Dickinson (Australia)
Touch judges: Jonathan Kaplan (South Africa), Daniel Cheever (Australia)
TMO: Johann Meuwesen (South Africa)