The Bulls were cheated out of a potential match-winning try when they immediately responded to the Rebels’ third try by stealing the ball back from the kickoff and dotting down as centre Burger Odendaal produced a superb run and great stepping.
Referee Nick Briant, who spoke way more sternly to the Bulls all night compared to his matey chats to the Rebels, referred the decision to TMO Ian Smith. Despite the replays clearly showing the ball touching the ground and both Smith and Briant agreeing that the ball was over the line, the TMO disallowed Odendaal’s try.
They were then forced to keep chasing the game and the Bulls were as ineffective at that as they had been in maintaining the lead for the previous hour. The Bulls could make little headway on attack, often being too lateral, while the Rebels often stretched the Bulls defence and dominated the final quarter to claim a deserved, but tarnished victory.
The Bulls, needing to win – and preferably with a four-try bonus point – to have any chance of still qualifying for the playoffs, opened the scoring with a fifth-minute try to prop Dean Greyling from a rolling maul that was not defended, lock Victor Matfield backing to within inches of the line.
The lineout and rolling maul was one area of clear dominance for the Bulls, but could they penetrate with ball in hand in open play and prove they are not as one-dimensional as their critics say? The early omens proved disappointingly true for the visitors as an early effort to go wide from a Lappies Labuschagne turnover resulted in them being penalised for obstruction, leading to the Rebels’ levelling the scores with a try by brilliant flank Sean McMahon.
It was a classic blindside move with scrumhalf Nic Stirzaker breaking and eighthman Scott Higginbotham offloading well in the tackle, but the Bulls could have defended it much better than they did as halfback Rudi Paige, eighthman Pierre Spies and wing Travis Ismaiel were all slow to react to what was going on.
It was a malaise that would afflict the Bulls’ defence all night – they were more reactive than aggressive in defence and the Rebels were often able to make dangerous headway.
Flyhalf Jacques-Louis Potgieter added a scrum penalty to his earlier conversion and the Bulls went 17-7 ahead on the half-hour when Labuschagne scored from a massive rolling maul, having started the move with a crucial turnover that stopped a promising Rebels’ attack.
But the last 10 minutes of the first half belonged to the home side and they finally scored just before the hooter as flyhalf Jack Debreczeni knifed through after a scrum under the poles. The conversion by fullback Mike Harris brought the Rebels back to within three points at 14-17 at the break.
The Bulls started the second half in promising fashion as they kept the ball in hand from the kickoff and rumbled upfield to earn Potgieter another penalty (20-14). But instead of being able to bury the Rebels, the Bulls just meandered through the next half-hour, going nowhere on attack and looking as if they were merely going through the motions.
Their task was not made easier by referee Briant, who seemed to be watching them way more closely than the Rebels. Their efforts to gain some momentum were seriously hampered by a harsh yellow card to Greyling, for not rolling away, in the 54th minute, but it was their inability to dominate the gain-line that started the trouble. They had possession but a crunching McMahon tackle led to a turnover and a counter-attack.
Their defence, one-man short, then couldn’t hold in the face of concerted pressure from the Rebels and lock Lopeti Timani crashed over for what became the match-winning try.
It could have been Odendaal’s excellent effort three minutes later, but the tendency of Australian officials to favour their kin once again came to the fore.
But the Bulls, in a do-or-die match, played with such little fire that they scarcely deserved to win. They attacked with little conviction, although there were some lovely touches with ball in hand.
The playoffs are now out of the equation for the Bulls as they return home with the future of coach Frans Ludeke in serious doubt. The winds of change will surely be blowing through the corridors of Loftus Versfeld this week.
Rebels – Tries: Sean McMahon, Jack Debreczeni, Lopeti Timani. Conversions: Mike Harris (3).
Bulls – Tries: Dean Greyling, Lappies Labuschagne. Conversions: Jacques-Louis Potgieter (2). Penalties: Potgieter (2).