Bulls lose to Stormers to miss out on top spot
CAPE TOWN, South Africa (AP) — The Bulls fell at the very end, losing to South African rivals the Stormers 30-13 in the final match of Super Rugby’s regular season on Saturday to end a nine-game winning streak and miss out on top place in the standings.
Needing a 10th straight victory to make sure of a No. 1 finish and a home final should they win their semi, the Bulls were outplayed from the start by the inspired Stormers at Newlands.
Springboks Eben Etzebeth, Bryan Habana and Jean de Villiers scored tries for the Stormers, who ended 2013 strongly in South Africa’s always-fierce north-south derby after an average season.
Fullback Zane Kirchner had the Bulls’ only try midway through the first half to close it to 14-10, but the Stormers still led throughout and pulled away in the second half for a deserved win.
The Bulls finished second overall after a fourth loss in 16 and will host a home semifinal in two weeks. However, their first loss since March hands the advantage to the table-topping Chiefs of New Zealand, who are in pole position to defend their title in a home final in Hamilton.
The Bulls and the Chiefs await the winners of next weekend’s qualifiers, where the Christchurch-based Crusaders of New Zealand host the Queensland Reds of Australia, and the ACT Brumbies of Australia play the Bloemfontein-based Cheetahs of South Africa for a place in the last four.
Saturday’s defeat for the Bulls could mean that they eventually have to travel to the Chiefs to try and win their fourth Super Rugby title — provided the top two teams win their semifinals.
Springboks lock Etzebeth powered over in the left corner in the 10th minute to set the tone for a derby where the Stormers swept away their on-off form to down the powerful South African Conference winner.
Wing Habana sliced through the Bulls defense in the 16th for a try in his final game in Super Rugby before joining France’s Toulon, and South Africa captain De Villiers drove over from close range for the victory-sealing third early in the second half.
“Obviously a bit disappointed. We missed a trick tonight and missed an opportunity to be top of the log,” Bulls captain Dewald Potgieter said, barely celebrating as he received the trophy for winning the South African Conference. “But we’re in playoff rugby now and that’s all that counts.”
Young flyhalf Gary van Aswegen kicked three conversions and three penalties to keep the Stormers ticking over, although the Cape Town team has only the domestic Currie Cup to look forward to now.
Kirchner hit the line at pace to reach out for the Bulls’ try in the 21st, but the Pretoria-based side never got closer than four points with the Stormers’ forwards regularly on the front foot, Van Aswegen taking his opportunities, and the backs scoring tries when they had the chance.
The Bulls effectively conceded victory soon after De Villiers’ score in the 56th as they took off international flyhalf Morne Steyn and other starters to save them for the semifinals back at home in Pretoria.
“We’re back at Loftus (Versfeld), where hopefully we’ll have the rest of South Africa backing us to do the job,” skipper Potgieter said.
South Africa’s record try-scorer Habana had the last act of his final game before leaving for the European champion as he kicked the ball into touch to signal the Stormers’ victory.
Stormers 30 (Eben Etzebeth, Bryan Habana, Jean de Villiers tries; Gary van Aswegen 3 conversions, 3 penalties), Bulls 13 (Zane Kirchner try; Morne Steyn conversion, 2 penalties). HT: 23-13.