Four drop-goals from fly-half MornÚ Steyn helped the Bulls to a 36-23 Super 14 semi-final win over the Crusaders at Loftus Versfeld on Saturday.
What a game. What a game. What a game! The Bulls fought back from being 20-13 down late in the first period with an eight-minute blitz to lead 27-20 at the break before taking a strangle hold on the game in the second half.
The Pretoria side will now host the Chiefs at Loftus Versfeld on Saturday as they bid for their second Super 14 title in three years.
The Bulls got off to a sketchy start. In the absence of regular inside centre Wynand Olivier the home side lacked penetration in midfield in the first half-an-hour and were guilty of overdoing their territorial kicking and giving far too much possession away in the process.
Sharks coach John Plumtree had warned the Bulls not to rely on their kicking to beat the Crusaders, who saw the blue bombs coming a mile away and sat back and secured possession by taking marks.
With discipline stats heavily in the Crusaders favour in the early stages, the visitors looked on course to prove former coach Robbie Deans right by out-thinking the Bulls into the final.
Stephen Brett got the score board ticking when Gurthr÷ Steenkamp was nailed for illegal scumming. The Bulls were going backwards at scrum-time and all the early signs were pointing in the 'Saders direction.
But the Bulls didn't finish top of the Super 14 table by the grace of MornÚ Steyn and Fourie du Preez's boots alone. The tight five answered the call with some solid build up play. With the Crusaders defence stretched, Bryan Habana added to his reputation as the world's most dangerous player when he found a gap next to a ruck and turned on the gas to put the Bulls in front.
The Crusaders' reply was almost immediate. Their attacking was clinical and some fast hands from Ryan Crotty and Tim Bateman put Adam Whitelock into the corner. The TMO gave the thumbs up before Leon MacDonald slotted a pearl of a conversion.
MacDonald extended the lead from the kicking tee when a debatable off-side call went against the Bulls.
The capacity Loftus Versfeld crowd fell silent when the Crusaders opened the gap to thirteen points. Brett's high kick put Akona Ndungane under pressure and Kieran Read's weight and momentum won him with the aerial catching contest. The flank stretched out an arm to score.
With the first quarter possession stats showing 67 per cent for the Crusaders, the Bulls needed to keep ball in hand and they did just that.
Some fantastic build up play sparked a huge come back, starting with a try out wide for Ndungane, who was put away by Zane Kirchner. Steyn's conversion from the touchline equalled MacDonald's earlier effort.
The Bulls were plying the pressure. Waldrom was sent to the bin for intentionally knocking the ball down prompting Victor Matfield to gamble by opting to push for a try but when his plan backfired, Steyn had the presence of mind to slot a drop goal.
Steyn audaciously popped a second drop over before Pierre Spies capped an manic period of play with a 50m sprint, outpacing Crotty to score a telling try on the counter.
Twenty points in eight minutes put the Bulls up 27-20 at half time.
As so often is the case in play-off matches, the second half saw a tightly fought, tense affair.
The Crusaders were first to strike after the break when Andy Ellis bisected the uprights with a cheeky drop goal to reduce the gap to three. It took twenty minutes for the Bulls to reply. Steyn slotted a penalty and then his third drop with twelve minutes to play.
Already ten points up, Steyn then struck another nail into the 'Saders coffin with his fourth drop goal - this time from nearly 50m out.
Cue the Bulls forwards to hang onto the ball like a mother hanging onto her baby in a hurricane. With the men in red unable to get anywhere near the ball, the game was done and dusted.
Man of the match:Steyn is an obvious candidate and Spies was phenomenal with ball in hand. But we reckon Zane Kirchner's contribution was the telling factor. With the Bulls under the cosh in the first half, his defence was flawless and his kicking pinpoint. He put Ndungane away with some neat footwork and quick hands and his tackle on Whitelock to save a try on 29 minutes was possibly the turning point of the game. Peter de Villiers, need we say more?
For the Bulls:
Tries:Habana, Ndungane, Spies
Drops: Steyn 4
For the Crusaders:
Tries: A. Whitelock, Read
Cons: MacDonald 2
Pens: Brett, MacDonald
Yellow cards: Waldrom (Crusaders - 35th min - professional foul)
Bulls:15 Zane Kirchner; 14 Akona Ndungane, 13 Marius Delport, 12 Jaco Pretorius,11 Bryan Habana, 10 MornÚ Steyn, 9 Fourie du Preez; 8 Pierre Spies, 7 Dewald Potgieter, 6 Deon Stegmann, 5 Victor Matfield (c), 4 Bakkies Botha, 3 Werner Kruger, 2 Derick KuŘn, 1 Gurthr÷ Steenkamp. Replacements: 16 Chiliboy Ralepelle, 17 Rayno Gerber, 18 Danie Rossouw, 19 Pedrie Wannenburg, 20 Heini Adams, 21 Burton Francis, 22 Gerhard van den Heever.
Crusaders: 15 Leon MacDonald, 14 Jared Payne, 13 Tim Bateman, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 Adam Whitelock, 10 Stephen Brett, 9 Andy Ellis, 8 Thomas Waldrom, 9 Richie McCaw (c), 6 Kieran Read, 5 Isaac Ross, 4 Brad Thorn, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Jason Macdonald, 1 Wyatt Crockett. Replacements: 16 Daniel Perrin, 17 Ben Franks, 18 Michael Paterson, 19 George Whitelock, 20 Kahn Fotuali'i, 21 Colin Slade, 22 Hamish Gard.
Venue: Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria
Referee: Bryce Lawrence (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Mark Lawrence (South Africa), Garratt Williamson (New Zealand)
TMO: Shaun Veldsman (South Africa)