Bulls dash Lions hopes of reaching fourth straight final
Golden Lions, beaten in the last three Super Rugby finals, failed to reach the knockout phase this season after a 48-27 hammering at South African neighbours Northern Bulls Saturday.
The Johannesburg-based Lions needed one point from the last match of the regular season at Loftus Versfeld stadium in Pretoria to secure a quarter-finals place.
But after scoring within a minute of the kick-off, they conceded four tries to trail 31-19 by half-time in a match between franchises just 60 kilometres (37 miles) apart.
A Cyle Brink try narrowed the gap to just four points on 56 minutes, but the visitors then faded and conceded three more tries to finish a well beaten team.
Otago Highlanders from New Zealand were grateful to the Bulls as they crept into the quarter-finals, finishing one point above the Lions in the combined standings.
The other last-eight place on the line Saturday went to the Coastal Sharks after a dramatic 12-9 win over the Western Stormers, who began the match one point ahead of their opponents.
Stormers were leading by four points when the hooter sounded for full-time, but Sharks kept the ball in play and Lukhanyo Am scored an 82nd-minute try.
SuperSport TV analyst and former Springboks coach Nick Mallett hailed the Bulls and the Lions for their "skill and innovation".
"They were streets ahead of the Sharks and the Stormers, who used to be the South African sides that had those qualities in abundance."
The quarter-finals begin this Friday with an all-New Zealand clash between defending champions the Canterbury Crusaders and the Highlanders in Christchurch.
On Saturday, the Wellington Hurricanes host the Bulls, the ACT Brumbies meet the Sharks in Canberra and the Jaguares face the Waikato Chiefs in Buenos Aires.
The Crusaders, who had a bye this weekend, are favoured to win a third consecutive title having topped the final combined standings, seven points above the Jaguares.
- Home advantage -
Finishing first means they will enjoy home advantage as long as they keep winning in the knockout phase, a major advantage in a competition involving tiring inter-continent flights.
In Pretoria, the Lions could not have wished for a better start as Hacjivah Dayimani scored just 15 seconds after the match began.
But the Bulls brushed off the setback to build a 31-13 lead before two Elton Jantjies penalties for the Lions narrowed the gap to 12 points by the break.
When Brink scored, the Lions must have sensed they had a chance of not only reaching the quarter-finals, but also avenging a heavy loss to the Bulls in Johannesburg this season.
Those hopes soon vanished, though, as the Bulls went on another try-scoring spree and skipper and playmaker Handre Pollard finished with 18 points.
The likely Springboks fly-half at the World Cup in Japan from September is the leading Super Rugby points scorer this season with 188.
Hanro Liebenberg, Marco van Staden, Lizo Gqoboka, Burger Odendaal, Cornal Hendricks, Pollard and Manie Libbok were Bulls' try scorers.
Pollard, who is moving to French Top 14 outfit Montpellier after the World Cup, also kicked five conversions and a penalty.
The Lions managed only two tries, from Dayimani and Brink, while Jantjies slotted a conversion and four penalties and Andries Coetzee kicked a drop goal.
In Cape Town, an intercept try by substitute Rhyno Smith gave the Sharks a 5-3 half-time advantage after Josh Stander kicked a penalty for the Stormers.
Penalties from Stander and Jean-Luc du Plessis gave the Cape Town outfit a four-point lead they held until Am finished off a multi-phase Sharks attack and Robert du Preez converted.
? 2019 AFP