These Bulls are an odd bunch.
So intimidating in the thin air in their own arena in Pretoria, they rarely kicked over the hot coals inside their bellies as they surrendered 28-13 to the Crusaders in last night's Super Rugby qualifying final in Christchurch.
Victory means the Crusaders will face the Chiefs in the semifinals in Hamilton next Saturday night after the Sharks beat the Reds in the second qualifying final in Brisbane.
Why were the Bulls so meek in the city where they last won a match in 1997?
A multitude of reasons could be offered for this capitulation in front of a below-capacity 16,000-strong crowd.
The Crusaders' ability to suspend the Bulls big ball runners with upper-body tackles, ferocity at the breakdown, and their superior scrum and lineout provided the major pieces of that puzzle.
In addition the Bulls' stars - and this is from a side that is colloquially titled the Bully Boys by some scribes in South Africa - just failed to front.
While Dewald and Jacques Potgieter tried to ignite some dynamite under their team-mates by carrying the ball with purpose, there was surprisingly little support from their captain and No 8 Pierre Spies and first five-eighth Morne Steyn.
It is difficult to get started when the boffin at the centre of your brains trust struggles to get his slippers under the work desk.
That was the scenario with Steyn; the Springboks playmaker blundered through most of the first half as if he had inadvertently wolfed a bottle of sleeping pills pre-match by making a string of uncharacteristic mistakes.
It began with Steyn hoofing a bomb too far from a scrum kick, was followed by a botched 22m restart, and then an embarrassing punt in which he made more contact with the turf than the ball.
Poking a finger at only Steyn for the Bulls' inability to make an impact - they also lost hooker Chiliboy Ralepelle with injury in the 13th minute and wing Bjorn Basson in the 36th - would be misguided.
Having conceded five penalties by the 20th minute and unable to retain possession for any significant period in the first half, they needed an individual to light the torch that would lead them out of the gloom.
The lineout struggled to send off a warning shot when Ralepelle fired his throw too long, their scrum was penalised early for walking around the mark, and lineout drives were successfully negated.
Crusaders wing Zac Guildford nabbed the sole five-pointer in the opening stanza when he sailed on to a flat pass from Dan Carter, offering his first five-eighth a gift conversion in front of the sticks.
While the Crusaders forwards, inspired by the efforts of Richie McCaw and the Whitelock brothers Sam and George, were a wild mob, whenever they sensed their opponents were rocked on their heels then the kings of their backline were Carter and halfback Andy Ellis.
Although neither was perfect - careless missed kicks for touch were sloppy - their leadership was invaluable and Carter amassed 23 points with his kicking.
Finals football is often about who resists the urge to blink first in the white-hot pressure; with their forwards refusing to yield to the boys in blue, Carter and Ellis calmly guided their back division about the park while midfielders Ryan Crotty and Robbie Fruean refused to yield in the midfield.
Although flanker Dewald Potgieter drove over for the Bulls' first try mid-way through the second half and midfielder Wynand Olivier another late in the match, the damage had been done far earlier due to a high error-rate and a loose kicking game.
Crusaders (Zac Guildford try; Dan Carter con, 6 pen, drop goal) Bulls (Dewald Potgieter, Wynand Olivier tries; Morne Steyn pen). Ht: 16-3
- © Fairfax NZ News
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