They did all the hard work to nullify the Bulls at Waikato Stadium last night but the Chiefs let themselves down when it counted in the last 15 minutes.
The result was a 33-19 victory to the South Africans that with a bonus point left them firmly atop the Super 12 ladder eight weeks into the competition and the Chiefs still without a win at Waikato Stadium in three games there this year.
On paper it looks like a one-sided affair – four tries to one and a 14-point margin. But it was far from that.
The lead changed six times in the match and with quarter of an hour to go the Bulls were clinging to a narrow 21-19 advantage, their big forwards looking tired after being run around all game by the width in the Chiefs' attack.
But then their brilliant Springbok halfback Fourie du Preez, who just minutes earlier had saved the Bulls on defence, saw his chance on attack and took it with a clean break up the middle.
Suddenly the Chiefs were scrambling in defence on their own goal-line and after wave after wave of pick-and-go attack that defence ran out and hooker Gary Botha scored between the posts.
Morne Steyn's conversion bumped the visitors out to a 28-19 lead and gave them some breathing space as well as breathing new life into their stilted and conservative attack.
When du Preez again raced away from an intercept on his own 22 and looked to have scored, the game seemed over until an assistant referee call wiped out the try, much to the relief of most of the 12,900-strong crowd at the stadium, and had Stephen Donald lining up a penalty kick at goal back down on that 22 in front of the posts.
It was a chance for the Chiefs to get back inside seven points but Donald missed it, Bulls lineout ace Victor Matfield pinched a Chiefs throw and suddenly the Bulls were back on attack, flanker Dewald Potgieter hammering the final nail into the coffin of the home side with a try from a lineout drive in the right corner.
It was the sort of drive that had been brilliantly repelled by the Chiefs for most of the game but this time they were caught napping.
"It's disappointing to lose but I'm proud of the effort," Chiefs coach Ian Foster said.
"I thought we really stuck to our guns, stuck to what we wanted to do and were in the game for a long time.
"It was just that last 15 minutes probably that our execution, with quite a few handling errors in contact and we couldn't put them under any pressure down at their end."
Foster was annoyed a penalty 16 minutes into the second half that put the Bulls into the lead for the final time had been against lock Culum Retallick not releasing the ball when he felt the Bulls tackler had not allowed him to release it.
"And then Steve missing (a kick) that he would normally get, it was a little bit of a swing there and put us in catch-up mode." Centre Richard Kahui had also dropped the ball in contact a number of times in the game – part of a string of small errors that continue to prevent the Chiefs maintaining pressure on their opponents.
"We've just got to make sure we hold the ball and put the opposition under a bit more pressure next week," Foster said.
While the Chiefs diffused the Bulls' considerable forward power in the first spell, combating the much-talked about lineout drive in particular, they put themselves under pressure with a host of handling errors and conceding seven penalties.
That added up to a two-tries-to-one advantage for the visitors to lead 15-13 at the break.
It could have been more but Steyn had an off-night with his goal-kicking, managing just two out of five before halftime before improving to three out of four in the second spell.
In the first half the Bulls turned several other goal-kicking opportunities as they opted for their potent lineout drive instead.
But it was the first time they tried a variation away from the drive that the Bulls prised open the Chiefs' defence for the first try in only the eighth minute.
Young wing Gerhard van den Heever zoomed onto a cut-out pass off the back of an attacking lineout from the right-hand blind-side wing and found himself in space enough to score untouched left of the posts.
It should have been a simple conversion for Steyn but he missed and the Chiefs came straight back with a try of their own with halfback Brendon Leonard chasing after a Tim Nanai-Williams chip kick, toeing the ball ahead when it was fumbled by the Bulls' defence and when fullback Zane Kirchner also failed to gather he dribbled it over the goal-line and scored.
Stephen Donald's conversion put the Chiefs ahead, Steyn got it back for the Bulls when Donald was penalised for a high tackle and a Pierre Spies try in the 29th minute through poor defence was flanked either side by Donald penalty goals.
Two Donald penalties early in the second spell had the Chiefs ahead 19-15 and the home side's up-tempo game was making in-roads, but Donald missed his next kick and two Steyn goals got the Bulls back in front.
SCORES AT A GLANCE
Bulls 33 (Gerhard van den Heever, Pierre Spies, Gary Botha, Dewald Potgiter tries; Mornie Steyn 3 pen, 2 con) Chiefs 19 (Brendon Leonard try; Stephen Donald 4 pen, con). HT: 15-13.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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