Champions Cup: Bulls claim bonus-point win over Exeter in high-scoring game while La Rochelle strike late to break Ulster hearts

Planet Rugby
Johan Grobbelaar

The Bulls picked up a 39-28 bonus-point victory over Exeter Chiefs in a high-scoring Champions Cup meeting at Loftus Versfeld on Saturday.

Elrigh Louw, David Kriel, Ruan Vermaak, Wandisile Simelane (2) and Johan Grobbelaar crossed for the Bulls while Chris Smith and Johan Goosen contributed off the tee, as the Pretoria outfit claimed their second triumph from three pool games thus far.

For Exeter, Josh Hodge, Solomone Kata, Jannes Kirsten and Jack Innard scored as they depart South Africa with a try bonus point to show for their efforts.

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England international Henry Slade was handed his marching orders in the second half for a high tackle on Kurt-Lee Arendse, putting his participation at the beginning of this year’s Six Nations campaign – which begins next month at home to Scotland – in doubt.

Despite the red card, Exeter finished strongly enough to stay above their opponents in the table with a home game against Castres to come.

It was hooker Innard who forced his way over in the final seconds for that fourth Exeter try, though the home side scored six on their way to a comfortable victory.

Exeter had started strongly in the altitude of Loftus Versfeld, but a lack of discipline allowed the home side to open the scoring from a tap penalty under the posts which saw number eight Louw barge over from short range before Smith converted.

Exeter hit straight back with centre Slade sending out a superb pass to full-back Hodge which cut out the blitzing Kriel.

Hodge had a bit to do but found the open spaces to race 40 yards to score under the posts with Joe Simmonds converting.

The Bulls were obviously taking notes because when replacement hooker Bismarck du Plessis earned a turnover, they too sent out a pass to their full-back which cut out the charging defence.

Arendse showed his pace to race clear, centre Simelane taking the ball on and passing back inside for Kriel to get the try.

When in doubt, Exeter can always rely on the lineout drive. A scrum penalty gave them the chance of a five-metre lineout and the backs joined the forwards in the drive to the line, with centre Kata getting the score.

Just before half-time, the Bulls got their second try from a tap penalty under the posts and this time it was second-row Vermaak who charged over.

They extended their lead shortly afterwards, Simelane fly hacking ahead and taking advantage of a fortunate bounce to regather and score his first try for the Bulls.

The pace of the game even got to referee Mathieu Raynal, who departed with a hamstring injury and was replaced by touch judge Thomas Charabas.

His first action was a scrum penalty against Exeter and Bulls hooker Grobbelaar went over from the lineout drive.

Charabas’ second major decision was the red card for Exeter skipper Slade.

The spirit of 14-man Exeter was shown by Kirsten going over for a try – as Harvey Skinner added the extras – before Simelane sealed the result with an interception try.

But that set up the grandstand finish with the visitors pushing for the bonus-point try and eventually getting it at the end through Innard.

La Rochelle score at death to sink Ulster

Ulster suffered late agony against La Rochelle as the reigning Champions Cup holders crossed at the death to seal a 7-3 win at Stade Marcel Deflandre.

Nathan Doak kicked a 63rd-minute penalty to put Ulster ahead but the French side snatched it at the end as replacement prop Joel Sclavi crashed over from a driving lineout.

Antoine Hastoy landed the conversion and Ulster will feel hard done by following a heroic defensive display.

Ulster produced an impressive performance and adapted to the driving wind and rain better than their hosts and had two first-half tries ruled out.

The visitors had lost their previous two games against Sale Sharks and La Rochelle at home in Pool B and were playing for pride on French soil.

Coach Dan McFarland made eight changes to the side that lost 31-29 to Benetton in the United Rugby Championship last week.

The Ulster boss was forced to make another change when Ben Moxham was drafted in to replace Billy Burns on the bench just before kick-off.

The first game between the two sides was controversially switched to Dublin’s Aviva Stadium and played behind closed doors after Ulster’s Kingspan Stadium pitch was deemed unplayable the day before the game.

The tough conditions in France were evident after Hastoy’s early low penalty into the wind was held up and hit the post.

Scrum-half Doak’s attempted penalty for Ulster from deep inside his own half then fell just short to demonstrate how strong the wind was at his back.

Flanker Nick Timoney looked to have scored the game’s first try for Ulster but dropped the ball before he crashed over the home side’s line.

Wing Rob Lyttle suffered the same fate after he appeared to score a try but it was ruled out for a knock-on earlier in the move, leaving Ulster having crossed the whitewash twice with both scores ruled out and the score 0-0 at half-time.

After the break, the home side adapted better to the weather but the game was still dominated by the conditions with little rugby played by either side.

Doak landed his penalty just after the hour mark when La Rochelle were penalised to give the Belfast side a lead, but they were denied right at the end when prop Sclavi crossed for the vital try.

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