The Vodacom Bulls held onto their leadership of a ferociously contested South African Conference on a weekend of success at the expense of Australian teams.
The Vodacom Bulls maintained their two-point advantage over the DHL Stormers – as both recorded bonus point victories over the Queensland Reds (43-22) and NSW Waratahs (32-18) respectively – while the Toyota Cheetahs showed enormous character to finish their tour on a high in Perth with a win over the Western Force (24-15).
In the South African derby at Emirates Airlines Park, the Emirates Lions underlined the seriousness of their challenge for the Conference title with two-point victory (23-21) over a significantly improved Cell C Sharks who missed a long-range last-kick penalty that would have snatched the victory.
The upshot of the weekend was that the top four SA teams are separated by just four points on the log – in contrast to their fellow conferences where the Hurricanes top the standings as New Zealand’s top four are spread by 11 points while in an even more clear-cut Australian race sees the ACT Brumbies head a log in which 17 points cover the top four Australian contenders.
Three of SA’s winners had to overcome half-time deficits to record victories with the most notable being those of the DHL Stormers and Toyota Cheetahs who achieved it on Australian soil.
However, the margins were small – both trailed by two points – while the Emirates Lions turned round three points adrift of the Cell C Sharks as all three teams showed fitness and character to ‘win’ the second half.
In the other match the Vodacom Bulls’ recent home success over the Queensland Reds continued as they stomped to a six-try victory with Francois Hougaard scoring two tries from the wing to take his tally to four for the season and join Marcell Coetzee as the leading South African try-scorers.
Emirates Lions 23 (11) Cell C Sharks 21 (14)
A 37,000-strong Emirates Airlines Park audience was not disappointed as the home team put a dismal record against the Cell C Sharks behind them in an edge-of-the-seat victory.
Tries by Faf de Klerk and Harold Vorster shortly after the break gave the Emirates Lions the lead in the 47th minute and they held on to record only their second victory over the Cell C Sharks in their the past 12 meetings.
Replacement prop Thomas du Toit scored the Sharks’ third try with two minutes remaining to close the gap to two points and set up a frantic closing period.
The visitors were in possession when the siren sounded and were awarded a long range penalty as the Lions infringed in their desperate attempts to close out the game.
Sharks flyhalf Fred Zeilinga was left with a difficult kick – some 15 metres in from the right-hand touchline and just inside the Lions’ half. His strike was good but his accuracy marginally awry and the ball sailed away to the right of the uprights.
The Lions have now won five of their last six matches, all by margins of fewer than five points.
They had been held tryless by the Sharks in their previous two meetings, but on this occasion scored their three tries in a frenetic eight period either side of half-time.
Emirates Lions: Tries: Faf Klerk, Harold Vorster, Howard Mnisi. Conversion: Elton Jantjies. Penalties: Jantjies (2).
Cell C Sharks: Tries: Lwazi Mvovo, Renaldo Bothma, Thomas du Toit. Conversions: Fred Zeilinga (3).
Vodacom Bulls 43 (24) Queensland Reds 22 (5)
The Reds have now lost their last six matches in Pretoria, including their heaviest Vodacom Super Rugby loss (92-3 in 2007) and as the Bulls raced out to a 24-5 lead at half-time another one-sided rout appeared on the cards.
Two tries in the first ten minutes of the new half – by Will Genia and Nick Frisby – closed the gap to a more modest seven points (24-17), forcing the Bulls to work hard to re-establish their dominance.
And hard work was the watchword of this performance for the home side as they used aggressive defence – their 140 tackles was more than double that of the Reds – as an attacking weapon, forcing turnovers and mistakes to run in six tries (their best of the season) and score their second try-scoring bonus point of the campaign.
The win maintained the Vodacom Bulls’ two point lead at the top of the SA Conference, now over the DHL Stormers who leap-frogged the Cell C Sharks into second, with the Vodacom Bulls due to meet both teams in the next fortnight in seismic derbies.
Fullback Jess Kriel was named Man of the Match for an outstanding counter-attacking performance – brushing through or evading tackles to carry the ball for 194 metres – and create one of two tries for Francois Hougaard from 60 of these metres in one run.
Hougaard was not far behind with 153 metres – 50 of those of from a piece of grand larceny, stripping the ball out of the arms of prop James Slipper and collecting the bouncing ball to gallop down the right-hand touchline.
Vodacom Bulls: Tries: Francois Hougaard (2), Burger Odendaal, Marcel van der Merwe, Pierre Spies, Piet van Zyl. Conversions: Jacques-Louis Potgieter (3), Tian Schoeman (2). Penalty: Potgieter.
Queensland Reds: Tries: Lachlan Turner, Marco Kotze, Nicholas Frisby, Will Genia. Conversion: Turner.
Western Force 15 (10) Toyota Cheetahs 24 (8)
The Toyota Cheetahs showed a never-say die attitude to end their four-match tour on a high note with a victory built on hard-working defence.
The Cheetahs made 173 tackles to just 62 and although they missed a number (20), their determination and scrambling defence effectively tackled the Force to a standstill.
The home side dominated possession and led at half-time but the Cheetahs were not to be denied their second successive win in Perth.
For the seventh time in nine meetings between the teams the match was decided by fewer than ten points and for the seventh time in those matches it was another low scorer with fewer than 40 points scored by the teams.
The Force may have thought they had taken a winning lead when their second try, shortly after the break, took them out to a 15-8 lead against a team playing the last 40 minutes of a long and disappointing tour.
But the Cheetahs had different ideas and they clawed their way back into the match with a penalty and drop goal from flyhalf Joe Pietersen before the remorseless Heinrich Brussow finished off a rolling maul to give the visitors the lead with 13 minutes remaining.
Another Pietersen penalty with three minutes to play closed out the game for the Toyota Cheetahs against a Force team that had been tackled into confusion.
Western Force: Tries: Chris Alcock, Luke Morahan. Conversion: Luke Burton. Penalty: Burton.
Toyota Cheetahs: Tries: Heinrich Brussow, Raymond Rhule. Conversion: Joe Pietersen. Penalties: Pietersen (3), Drop-goal: Pietersen.
Waratahs 18 (15) DHL Stormers 32 (13)
The DHL Stormers inflicted only the second defeat in 13 home matches on the champion NSW Waratahs, scoring their first try-scoring bonus point of the season on the way, to kick their tour to life in some style.
The DHL Stormers’ victory was all the more notable as they reversed recent history with a 14-point winning margin against a team that had averaged 18-point victories in that winning run at home.
The DHL Stormers had a simply storming second half, outscoring the home side 19-3, as their alertness in defence and deftness in counter-attack confounded a Waratahs team at a loss to find a way through, round or over the Cape Town team’s defence.
The victory was studded with sparkling long-range tries with all of Cheslin Kolbe, Kobus van Wyk and Damian de Allende finishing off attacks launched from their own half – Van Wyk’s a daring piece of enterprise from the DHL Stormers’ own 22.
Juan de Jongh’s fingertip intercept set up De Allende’s score while Kolbe picked up a loose ball midway in his own half to jink and jive his way to the tryline. Both were reward for the DHL Stormers’ smothering defence.
Van Wyk’s try seven minutes into the second half gave the DHL Stormers the lead but a Bernard Foley penalty ensured it a was a two-point ball game going into the final quarter.
However it was in that period that the work that the DHL Stormers had done in the first hour came to fruition as their defence created the opportunities for their backs to exploit.
NSW Waratahs: Tries: Teqele Naiyaravoro, Rob Horne. Conversion: Bernard Foley. Penalties: Foley (2).
DHL Stormers: Tries: Damian de Allende (2), Cheslin Kolbe, Kobus van Wyk. Conversions: Kurt Coleman (2), Demetri Catrakilis. Penalties: Catrakilis (2).
Other results – Round Nine:
Blues 16 Brumbies 14
Crusaders 20 Highlanders 25