Scarlets sucker punch naive Bulls
Far from the dominant force they are at Loftus Versfeld, the Vodacom Bulls took a step backwards as a tactically naive performance saw them slump to a 37-28 defeat against the Scarlets in Llanelli on Friday night.
There’s a legend that the Bulls don’t do well traveling to foreign lands, and on the evidence of the past two weeks, you’ll find few who would be able to prove that wrong.
Starting against a Scarlets side missing several caps, sitting 15th in the table and likely to struggle to break into the top eight, the third-placed Bulls looked like the tables were turned as they struggled to to take advantage of a power play that dominated, a set piece that was at its peak and more than enough scoring opportunities.
Instead, they morphed into an ineffective, bumbling outfit at times that gifted field position and points to their opposition, who used home ground advantage to good effect and drove it home with glee.
While the Scarlets will celebrate this as a massive win over a top side in the Vodacom United Rugby Championship, this was no spectacle. Runaway log leaders Leinster would probably put 50 on both teams on their performances on the night.
To underline that fact, this was the first time in eight games against Welsh franchises that the Bulls were on the losing side in their entire time in the URC.
So where did it go wrong for the Bulls? For some inexplicable reason, patience was nowhere to be found in attack and they looked dreadful as they were rushed by the Scarlets’ defense and made a series of inexplicable errors at crucial moments which ultimately cost them.
Then there were the two kickable penalties, with the Bulls only two points behind, after they had moved from 30-7 down to 30-28 and could easily have taken the lead. But instead they opted to go for a corner, were stopped and knocked on twice and then had to watch as the Scarlets rallied in the final minute to get their own bonus point try with a turnover that stretched the length of the field and into the end. David Kriel was booked for a late tackle.
It was the kind of game you could see the coaching staff pulling their hair out. The Bulls had selected their strongest team available, but they couldn’t put the hammer down.
BULLS WAY OUT OF PACE
To sum up the night, a determined try for Ruan Vermaak was stopped when captain Ruan Nortje somehow jumped between him and the defender on the tryline and instead of his arm being raised for a try, the obstruction was rightly called.
But the problems didn’t start there. The Bulls actually scored first with too much ease, drifting forward around the edges before Zak Burger took the ball through the gap to score.
That was where their first-half luck ended. From there, a defensive lineout on their own line was moved, with Nortje flicking the ball to Burger, who sent it into the goal area to Chris Smith, who under pressure drove it back to the five-metre line.
From there, it was no surprise that Dan Davis pounced over from close range. A punt turnover saw Harold Vorster collect the ball over the line – replays showed he never actually grounded the ball – but referee Andrew Brace thought he did and from the ensuing scrum Kemsley Mathias went over from close range.
Another three points from a penalty and then a turnover ball hacked down the field by Sam Costello found nobody home and scrum-half Gareth Davies took the ball with a smile to make it 24-7.
Scarlets had hardly broken a sweat and they were in the lead.
Costello added another penalty before a professional foul cost the home side Joe Roberts on 10 minutes and the Bulls finally had something to smile about when Stravino Jacobs latched on to a Johan Goosen cross to score.
At 27-14, the Bulls still had something to fight for, but Costello made it a little tougher with another early half-penalty to take three points on.
By now the Bulls’ scrum was becoming dominant and their power runs were gaining ground, so it was no surprise when Cyle Brink crossed from close range on 55 minutes and eight minutes later Simphiwe Matanzima made it a two-point game. .
With most of the possession and camping in the Scarlets half, the Bulls lacked the nuance, patience and attacking know-how to break down the Scarlets defence. Instead, they let the Welsh team off time and time again with dropped passes, knock-ons and one-off runners being cut down by the home side.
What should have been a surge back into the lead turned into frustration, with the Scarlets needing just one counter-attack – a run down the touchline by Ryan Conbeer to make the defense mock the Bulls for Kriel’s mistake. So with the man’s overlap it was only a matter of time before Johnny McNicholl went over to secure the win.
When the Bulls make the long trip back to Pretoria on Saturday, they will be kicking themselves for wasting so much possession and dominance and will feel this is a game they should have won.
But their tactical naivety and lack of finishing shows how far off the pace they are, especially with their strongest side struggling against a bottom-ranked Scarlets side with no caps.
And it’s the reality check they’ll have to face before they host the Stormers in three weeks’ time.
– tries: Dan Davis, Kemsley Mathias, Gareth Davies, Johnny McNicholl. Conversions: Sam Costellow (3), Dan Jones. Penalties: Costellow (3)
Vodacom Bulls – samples: Zak Burger, Stravino Jacobs, Cyle Brink, Simphiwe Matanzima. Conversions: Chris Smith (4).