Bulls v Brumbies at Loftus Versfeld




A lovely mild evening greeted players and fans alike this evening at Loftus Versfeld, and the crowd of nearly 42,000 was abuzz before kickoff anticipating head-to-head clashes between the player formerly regarded at the world’s top scrumhalf George Gregan and arguably the world’s premier scrumhalf Fourie du Preez, and the lightning quick Bryan Habana and former South-African-under-21-star-turned-Aussie Clyde Rathbone.

The crowd left disappointed however with this the second game of the round that the South African side was not able to score a try, with the Brumbies scoring their third try at the death to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat to record a valuable 27-21 victory at the traditional Wallaby graveyard. The game also marked the remarkable achievement of Brumbies and Wallabies playmaker Stephen Larkham via his 100th Super match.

The game started with either side testing the opposing fullbacks with high kicks, and the crowd was surprised to see Derek Hougaard miss a field-goal in the 5th minute of play let alone attempt it so early. Only a minute later Brumby fullback failed to take a high-ball and consequently knocked it forward into the hands of Gearge Smith in an offside position.

Hougaard did not miss his target this time and took the score to 3-0, and it wasn’t for another 15 uninspiring minutes that we saw the Brumbies draw level after captain Stirling Mortlock was able to successfully kick a penalty goal.

Two minutes later Brumby prop Nic Henderson was cautioned over a late-tackle and Hougaard put the Bulls out to 6-3 from his own side of halfway. Minutes later he repeated the dose from his own side of halfway, pushing the Bulls further in fron to 9-3. The Bulls only try-scoring opportunity of the half came soon after when Adam Ashey-Cooper fumbled a high-ball though poor handling by the Bulls saw the advantage quickly negated.

The Brumbies counter-attacked at this point as young Matt Giteau brilliantly sliced through the Bulls centres to put a tip-toeing Rathbone in for the game’s first try. The video-referee much to the crowd’s dislike agreed to the score and with Mortlock’s sideline conversion the Brumbies were up 10-9.

The Bulls managed to lead the Brumbies into the dressing sheds at halftime through a Hougaard 30m drop goal, and the 12-10 scoreline was fairly indicative of the fairly equal distribution of possession to that point in time. The Bulls did dominate territorially through the strong work of their pack though, with the Brumbies rarely advancing past the halfway line with the ball in their possession.

Larkham and Gerrard continually kicked the Brumbies out of trouble, and Bulls forwards Jacques Cronje and Danie Russouw demonstrated much aggression in through the first half. The fans voiced their appreciation despite the Bull’s lack of control in centre-field, and were hopeful of a win based on these facts.

An early second half penalty propelled the Brumbies back into the lead at 13-12, and soon after they began to show some backline moves that they were unable to finish. Soon after Cronje and the injured David Palavi were replaced Hougaard once again put the locals in front 15-13, and shortly after an intercept by Johan Wasserman was put down on halfway by Habana.

The Brumbies, though not enjoying the quick service from the base of the scrum as the Bulls, fired the ball both ways across their flat and fast backline and were subsequently rewarded with a try to former-Red Daniel Heenan. Once more the Bulls midfield were exposed, and once more their loose forwards were unable to keep up with the play. Mortlock converted to put the Brumbies 20-15 ahead.

The trend from the Bulls midfield and loose forwards continued with Wynand Oliver resembling a human turnstile on more than one occasion. The crowd were becoming restless that the only move the Bulls were attempting seemed to be “throw it to Habana”, and as he was well marked all evening by Rathbone the Bulls didn’t really ever look like crossing the Brumby tryline.

Hougaard did however manage 2 more penalties, the latter being his third from over halfway to have the Bulls in front 21-20 with 2 minutes remaining on the clock. It was one final piece of Giteau magic that propelled mortlock over the tryline for the Brumbies third, with his conversion taking them out to an unasailable lead of 27-21 right on fulltime.

The Brumbies will count their blessings tonight as they head for Cape Town taking away a win from Loftus, though they need to address the delivery of quickball if they are going to maintain this flat backline against more organised sides in the Super14. The Bulls on the other hand have to address the lack of midfield organisation since the tragic departure of Ettienne Botha late in 2005, and their loose forwards will need to be wary of inside runners as opposing coaches strategise over coming weeks.

While neither side set the world on fire this evening, it would require significant improvement from either outfit should they seriously contend for a semifinal spot in the inaugaral Super14.

Richie Ley (in Pretoria)

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