The Bulls suffered a heartbreaking 29-28 loss to the Highlanders in their Super Rugby match at Loftus Versfeld on Saturday night.
Flyhalf Lima Sopoaga kept the scoreboard ticking over for the visitors with five penalties and two conversions in a faultless display of kicking.
The Bulls outscored the Highlanders by four tries to two and dominated the game in most facets, looking much like the better side.
But the bottom line is always the scoreboard, and sadly the Bulls made way too many mistakes that allowed the visitors to clinically build their tally, culminating in an angled 82nd-minute penalty by Sopoaga that snatched the spoils.
Sadly, it was a step backwards for the Bulls side, who are their own worst enemies, much like they have been in the last few years of Super Rugby.
While Sopoaga was the match winner for the Highlanders, who also won because of a rousing defensive effort, and Bulls prop Lizo Gqoboka was the official man of the match for his superb all-round display, arguably the best player on the park was flyhalf Handre Pollard.
The 24-year-old was immaculate in everything he did, succeeding with all three of his kicks at goal, defending his channel well, distributing with aplomb, kicking strategically and making great decisions on attack.
He scored the Bulls’ first try by perfectly reading a repeat of the Highlanders move that had brought their first try by scrumhalf Aaron Smith after right wing Ben Smith had been put into space out wide; gobbling up the flip-offload in the middle of the field like a pickpocket and racing away to score.
He then set up the Bulls’ last try – that gave them a 28-26 lead with just three minutes to go, by running a great line, straightening for a brilliant half-break that drew two defenders and then putting outside centre Jesse Kriel in the gap.
- Gqoboka started his first game this season after Pierre Schoeman was suspended for foul play and coach John Mitchell will be pleased to report he was an outstanding success at loosehead prop. With Trevor Nyakane at tighthead, the Bulls produced one of their most convincing scrummaging displays in months. Gqoboka was also explosive with ball in hand, even making a couple of line-breaks in midfield, he was hard in the tackle and he made a nuisance of himself at the breakdown as well, although he was harshly penalised for a side entry on one occasion by referee Glen Jackson, leading to one of the several three-pointers for Sopoaga.
- Mitchell uses a defensive system that encourages his wings to come in and be involved in the thick of the action, but the Bulls were caught a few times being a bit narrow in defence as a result. The Highlanders’ opening try, in the fourth minute, came off a lineout as their quick hands created space out wide for right wing Ben Smith with beautiful simplicity. His kick ahead eluded him, but scrumhalf Aaron Smith controlled the ball well with his leg and then his foot to score.
Having dominated the first half, the Bulls conceded a crucial try three minutes after the break when the Highlanders again easily created space out wide. Fullback Fletcher Smith joined the line on the blindside, passing to Ben Smith, who then passed inside to Aaron Smith, who then passed back to Fletcher Smith for a superb long-range try from their own 22.
Even the crucial final penalty by Sopoaga had its origins in a wide ball, which forced left wing Divan Rossouw to scramble back to the touchline and put in a high tackle in his desperation, leading to a penalty which gave the Highlanders a lineout deep in Bulls territory.
- The halftime score was 14-10 to the Bulls but it really should have been 21-10. They spent the last few minutes before the hooter bashing away on the Highlanders’ line, until the ball went wide to Kriel, who first tried to take on the defence himself and then just hurled a terrible pass out wide which was knocked on at the feet of fullback Warrick Gelant.
Straight after the break, the Bulls then gifted Sopoaga with a penalty as right wing Johnny Kotze played the ball while blatantly offside, after eighthman Thembelani Bholi had knocked-on a box-kick from scrumhalf Ivan van Zyl that was too short. The Bulls forwards certainly deserved better for their superb set-piece work and the backs had also won the territory game with astute kicking.
- If this setback deters the Bulls from continuing on the exciting path Mitchell has put them on this season then it would be sad. The fact that they were able to dominate a side as good as the Highlanders is an enormous positive. All this young side needed was a bit more discipline and composure to finish off their opportunities and clinch what would have been a major victory.
Bulls – Tries: Penalty try, Handre Pollard, Jason Jenkins, Jesse Kriel. Conversions: Pollard (3).
Highlanders – Tries: Aaron Smith, Fletcher Smith. Conversions: Lima Sopoaga (2). Penalties: Sopoaga (5).