It was not the greatest game for the purist as errors abounded, but the intensity was gripping and there was some thrilling rugby played at times, thanks to both teams showing plenty of positive intent. In the end the Bulls, who have been the Lions’ whipping boys of late, turned the tables on their neighbours.
Many of the errors were thanks to the unrelenting pressure both teams exerted on defence, with two ferocious loose trios going head-to-head. Opensider Ruan Steenkamp was outstanding for the Bulls as he led Arno Botha and Hanro Liebenberg, plus replacements Nic de Jager and Roelof Smit, to a moral victory over a combative and pacey Lions trio of Kwagga Smith, Cyle Brink and Ruan Ackermann.
The sun will certainly rise again for the Lions, but coach Johan Ackermann will be concerned that the defending champions just haven’t found much momentum in their four games thus far and they are sitting uncomfortably in fifth place, outside of the semi-final places at present, although they do have a game in hand.
The Bulls have climbed up to second on the log, although the Cheetahs will expect to move above them on Saturday after they host the Eastern Province Kings.
The Lions made a dozy start to the game, conceding a penalty from the kick-off, which Bulls flyhalf Tian Schoeman slotted.
The opening 25 minutes would not have raised too many from their slumber as Schoeman added two more penalties and his Lions counterpart Marnitz Boshoff replied with one (9-3).
But then the Bulls were caught napping. They were often equally dozy at kick-off time and a poor clearance from the restart after Schoeman’s third consecutive penalty gave the Lions a base from which to work with a lineout 30 metres away from the home side’s tryline.
Centre Rohan Janse van Rensburg came rushing through, breaking the line and the smart footwork of fullback Andries Coetzee kept the Bulls’ defence in disarray before the offload to centre Howard Mnisi led to the first try of the match. Boshoff kicked the conversion and suddenly the Lions had the lead, 10-9.
The Lions were in control for the rest of the first half, but a combination of terrific Bulls defence and the opportunism of wing Travis Ismaiel in racing away for a 60m intercept try meant the home side went into the break 16-10 up.
The Bulls are a young side, but they showed that they’re desperately hungry as they continued to shut the Lions out in the second half, and then stretched their lead to 21-10 as a fired-up Steenkamp broke the line and roared into the opposition 22, before the move was stopped by an offsides Lions player. The penalty was kicked to touch and the Bulls lineout, which was a massive force all night, set up the maul, with lock Marvin Orie forcing his way over for the try, the only one not converted by Schoeman.
The Lions were not done yet though and Schoeman not finding touch from a penalty led to more pressure for the Bulls. From a midfield scrum, the Lions went quickly wide, where replacement wing Jacques Nel released Smith on his inside.
The Springbok Sevens star produced an unbelievable burst of pace and although wing Jamba Ulengo was able to catch him, it was not enough to stop him as Smith showed sheer bloodymindedness to get back on his feet and fight his way over the line.
Boshoff converted and the Lions were only 17-21 behind. But the visitors’ scrum was often not stable under pressure from an excellent Bulls scrummaging display and Schoeman was allowed to kick a penalty from the set-piece in the 64th minute to put the home side 24-17 up.
The Bulls then scored in the 73rd minute to ensure there would be no comeback from the Lions. Ismaiel, so powerful when running at the line, burst through Mnisi and was able to offload in the 22 so replacement centre Josh Stander could scramble over the line.
Schoeman converted from the touchline so the Lions would only draw in the unlikely event that they scored twice in the last five minutes.
While the Lions are clearly not as hot as they were in SuperRugby, it was a fiery display from the Bulls, who will be a formidable side to beat at home as the Currie Cup speeds up to what will hopefully be a rousing climax.
Blue Bulls –Tries: Travis Ismaiel, Marvin Orie, Josh Stander. Conversions: Tian Schoeman (2). Penalties: Schoeman (4).
Golden Lions – Tries: Howard Mnisi, Kwagga Smith. Conversions: Marnitz Boshoff (2). Penalty: Boshoff.