Bulls

Bulls favourites to win Super 14 title

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The Bulls are favourites to win this year’s Super 14 rugby crown after claiming top spot in the final standings and with it home advantage should they reach this season’s final.


The Pretoria-based Bulls edged out the Sharks 27-26 in an all-South Africa thriller in Durban on Saturday to leapfrog the Chiefs to the top and will host defending champions the Crusaders next weekend.


The Chiefs will stage next week’s other semi-final against fellow New Zealanders Hurricanes after accounting for the Brumbies 10-7 in Hamilton on Friday.


If the Bulls, the 2007 winners, can see off the seven-time champion Crusaders then the title will be decided in Pretoria on May 30.


The Hurricanes secured third spot with a 37-28 win over Australia’s Reds in Brisbane, while the Crusaders needed a late drop goal to salvage a tense 15-13 win over the Blues in Auckland.


The Waratahs had been third midway through the weekend round after a 38-33 bonus-point win over South Africa’s Lions in Johannesburg, but were superseded in turn by the Crusaders and Hurricanes.


So after 14 weeks in the southern hemisphere provincial championship, the Bulls finished top with 46 points from 10 wins, ahead of the Chiefs (45/9), Hurricanes (44/9) and Crusaders (41/8).


For only the third time in the 14-season history of Super Rugby, no Australian team will play in the semi-finals.


It was a gutsy one-point win for the Bulls, who won despite having two players, centre JP Nel and flanker Deon Stegmann, in the ‘sin bin’ before half-time.


Yet despite their numbers disadvantage, Bulls turned 10-5 ahead, only to concede two early second-half tries that gave Sharks a nine-point advantage.


However, man of the match and leading Super 14 scorer, Bulls fly-half Morne Steyn, turned the tide by converting an Akona Ndungane try and dropping a goal for the second time in the game.


“It was an awesome game and our experience carried us through,” Bulls skipper and lock Victor Matfield said.


“Even when trailing by nine points we knew there was sufficient time to come back and win.”


The Chiefs capped a late-season charge to tie up their first-ever home semi-final with a dogged win over the Brumbies in steady rain.


The Chiefs won nine of their last 10 games to claim home advantage for next weekend’s all-Kiwi semi-final with the Hurricanes, whom they beat 16-8 in Hamilton a week ago.


“It was pretty tough out there,” captain Mils Muliaina said.


“It wasn’t a spectacle but we’re pretty excited, and this is what we wanted to achieve.”


Flyhalf Stephen Donald scored all the Chiefs’ points for the second straight week.


The Hurricanes locked up their fifth semi-final appearance in seven years with a bonus-point win over the Reds after leading 24-14 at half-time.


The Hurricanes, beaten finalists three seasons ago, got off to a flyer and led 24-7 after 30 minutes before the home side rallied to trail 31-21 before the Kiwis went on to secure victory.


A drop goal by Leon MacDonald with minutes left enabled the Crusaders to fend off the Waratahs’ late finals’ bid and down the fired-up Blues.


In a match that went down to the wire, the veteran fullback MacDonald was the hero for the defending champions, kicking all their points from four penalties before landing the match-winning drop goal.


The Waratahs ran in five converted tries to pip the Lions 38-33 but lost out on points differential to the Crusaders for the last playoff spot.


In the weekend’s other matches, Australia’s Western Force held off the fast-finishing Highlanders 33-28 in Perth and the Stormers carved out a hard-fought 28-22 win over the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein.


Sapa-AFP

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