Waratahs blow late chances as Bulls sneak home
The Waratahs will rue a series of missed opportunities in the final quarter of their match against the Bulls as they narrowly went down 28-21 at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria.
After trailing 18-7 at half time, the Waratahs slipped further behind shortly after the main break as Bulls captain Handre Pollard kicked the home side a further three points clear at altitude.
But when young forwards Harry Johnson-Holmes and Will Miller combined to earn the Waratahs a breakdown penalty, the visitors got some much needed field position.
While the original wave of attack was halted, the Waratahs did enough to secure possession at the scrum and livewire fullback Kurtley Beale showed his knack for finding the line and scored in the 51st minute to start their comeback.
Soon after Rona was denied a try out wide as some desperate defence from Cornal Hendricks did just enough to see his opposite winger lose control in the process of his superman dive out wide.
But there was no denying the Test winger a try in the 66th minute, as Rona finished off a lovely blindside play between Bernard Foley and Lalakai Foketi to score. Foley's conversion from out wide locked the scores up at 21-21.
With all the momentum though, the Waratahs weren't able to get away a strong exit as Beale found touch just outside his own 22 metre line from the kick restart.
The Bulls need not a second invitation to post points as replacement tighthead prop Simphiwe Matanzima charged over from close range following a steady and well-structured build up.
A series of penalties allowed the Waratahs to get back to within striking distance as the clock ticked down, but after setting up 10 metres out from the Bulls line captain Michael Hooper spilt the ball in the transition from the lineout to the maul.
From there the Bulls' rock solid scrum did what it had to do and the home side held on for an important win in an extremely close Super Rugby top eight.
"Yeah we did (have our chances)," lamented Hooper.
"We certainly put a lot of pressure on the Bulls and they were strong enough to hold us out a lot of times.
"We got a couple of big linebreaks, they chased us down and managed to slow up the ball and then we'd go to the scrum, and their scrum was fantastic today."
Pollard got the Bulls off to a quick start by slotting an early penalty and when Warrick Gallant scored after nine minute the home side were flying at 10-0 up in as many minutes.
The Waratahs hit back shortly after through Nick Phipps, who collected an offload from Ned Hanigan after an earlier excellent round the back flick pass from Karmichael Hunt.
But some excellent anticipation from Duane Vermeulen saw the Bulls skip ahead once again as the veteran Springboks No 8 intercepted Phipps' pass from the lineout and had too much pace and strength to score.
A long-range penalty from Pollard from near 60 metres out saw the Bulls take a 18-7 lead.
The Waratahs had a great chance to hit back on the half-hour mark after Curtis Rona made a decisive interception on his own line and helped kick start a stunning counterattacking effort.
But a turnover from Hunt in contact on the Bulls' line allowed the home side to get out of jail in the lead up to half time.
The basic errors were the differences between the two sides at full time.
While Pollard sprayed a couple of penalties in the second half, the Waratahs weren't quite clinical enough to come away with the victory despite having the better of the second half.
The Bulls' scrum dominated the Waratahs for the majority of the match, but it must be said that returning Test Wallaby Tom Robertson seemed to make a difference when coming on.
Reflecting on the game, Hooper said two soft tries they gave away hurt their chances of coming away with a victory.
"We probably let them in a bit easy there," Hooper said.
"Two quite easy tries - an intercept and then one right there at the line at the end - and probably ill-discipline, we gave Pollard a lot of shots at goal which could have made the score bigger."
The bonus-point loss left the Waratahs (21) in fourth spot on the Australian conference after the Reds (22) and Brumbies (24) posted victories over the weekend to leap ahead of them.
In contrast, the Bulls (28) rose to equal first alongside the Sharks in the South African conference with the hard-fought victory.
But Pollard said they would have to be much better to compete against the ladder-leading Crusaders next weekend.
"I think we were just inaccurate (in allowing the Waratahs back)," Pollard said.
"We had opportunities and we just didn't execute. Whether it was handling errors, it's small things but it's got a big effect on the game so we'll look at that. If we want to be serious in the competition we've got to be more accurate.
"It was great to get back to the winning side of things.
"We're a bit inconsistent at the moment, so that will be the chat going into next week - it's a tough one against the Crusaders, but it's at home so we'll come out Friday."