Happy birthday as Bulls win thriller

Morne Steyn of the Bulls shoots in Canberra on March 30, 2013.  By Mark Graham (AFP/File)

Morne Steyn of the Bulls shoots in Canberra on March 30, 2013. By Mark Graham (AFP/File)

PRETORIA (AFP) – Northern Bulls celebrated their 75th birthday in fitting fashion with a hard-fought 26-20 win over fellow South Africans Central Cheetahs Saturday in a full-blooded Super 15 clash.

The match before a 35,000 Loftus Versfeld crowd took a decisive turn early in the second half when the Bulls scored 10 points in four minutes to turn a 9-6 half-time deficit into a seven-point lead.

A gallant Cheetahs’ side came within two points just seven minutes from time when impressive prop Trevor Nyakane crashed over for a try, but the Bulls responded by scoring one of their own.

Replacement forward Callie Visagie got the touch down after a number of forward surges and fly-half Morne Steyn converted to finish with a 16-point tally.

But the Cheethas from Bloemfontein deserved something from an absorbing South African derby and they got a losing bonus point after the hooter sounded when substitute fly-half Francois Brummer kicked a penalty.

That point squeezed the Cheetahs into the top-six because they have won more matches than the Bulls and the Wellington Hurricanes, who suffered a 28-6 loss to Auckland Blues in a New Zealand showdown.

Victory for the Bulls confirmed their dominance over the Cheetahs, having won the nine previous Super Rugby meetings, and it ended a record five-match winning run by the visitors in the southern hemisphere championship.

But the Cheetahs showed why they have improved so much this season, matching three-time Super Rugby champions Bulls in every facet of the game only to find the home defence almost impenetrable during a hectic climax.

Bulls discard Burton Francis kicked three first-half penalty goals for the Cheetahs and Steyn two for the Bulls, who must have been shocked to find themselves trailing at the break after dominating possession and territory.

Coach Frans Ludeke told the Bulls to be more patient and clinical during the second half and they were soon in front as scrum-half Jano Vermaak eluded several tackles to dart over for a try, Steyn converted.

Steyn kicked a penalty and added another after Francis had done likewise for the Cheetahs to leave the Bulls 19-12 ahead 55 minutes into a physical battle the crowd were relishing.

The Cheetahs applied constant pressure, but were often forced to run across the pitch until Nyakane bulldozed over only for Francis to miss a difficult conversion that would have brought the teams level with six minutes left.