Vodacom Blue Bulls replacement scrumhalf Ivan van Zyl scored a 78th minute try to send his team into this year’s Currie Cup final, downing a game Western Province side 36-30 at Loftus Versfeld on Saturday night.
Van Zyl, who has 10 caps behind his name and wouldn’t have even been part of the match day squad had both Piet van Zyl and Andre Warner not been ruled out through concussion and injury, then calmly watched as his forwards gathered the restart before punting the ball into the stands to send his team into their first final since 2009.
And it ended the heartache of two previous semifinal losses to the same Cape side, denying John Dobson’s side a rare hat-trick in the competition.
But while it was joy for the Bulls, the result would have been heartbreaking for the Province side, who defended like demons and put on a second half display that almost took them to the final.
The see-saw match was a nail-biter of a game, with neither side getting an ascendancy, but in the end the result went to the side that dominated both possession and territory, and often had their own decision-making or handling to blame for not taking the game away from WP.
To see a Bulls side not fall back into the trap of 10 man rugby is unique, but Nollis Marais will be a relieved man as his side launched attack after attack from within their own half, often making a plethora of metres, only to be stopped by their own mistakes.
And it looked as if the Bulls were edging away with the game when flyhalf Tian Schoeman made two uncharacteristic errors that brought the Cape side back into the game, and sent it towards its cliffhanger ending, swinging the momentum in a second.
Schoeman’s mistakes though, were the only blight on his game, as a flawless kicking display saw him kick 21 points, and play a crucial role in the Bulls attack throughout the match.
While the Bulls still have a lot of work to do if they hope to contain the Free State Cheetahs next week and will enter the game as massive underdogs, they will take a lot of heart from the fact they were at times their own worst enemy, yet managed to pull through a game they could easily have lost against their bogey team.
With strong performances again from the likes of RG Snyman, Lizo Gqoboka, Burger Odendaal and especially Roelof Smit, they are building a top side of youngsters that are looking a lot more mature than the same team last year.
Smit in particular was strong on the ground and caused Province a lot of problems, while the Bulls physicality saw them dominate the collisions for most of the game.
Bulls wingers Travis Ismaiel and especially Jamba Ulengo won the battle of the back three, and were superbly dangerous throughout.
Province’s backline looked stronger with Bok Juan de Jongh back, but their inexplicable decision not to kick for posts in the last 10 minutes will still be one of the strangest decisions of the season so far.
WP can be proud of a defensive effort that looked for most of the second half as if it had thwarted the Bulls attack and considering the amount of ball the Bulls had at times, it was only natural they would eventually find a hole.
It was Ismaiel who found the first hole in the defence early on, after a burst upfield by Smit, with Odendaal running a superb line at speed to provide the soft hands for the winger to run round and score.
But the Bulls joy was shortlived as Province brought back the rolling maul for a beautiful 20 metre answer, running over the Bulls line with Nizaam Carr scoring to level things up.
The Bulls though kept on dominating play, and were rewarded with penalties throughout, keeping the scoreline ticking over to surge 16-7 ahead through Schoeman’s boot.
Robert du Preez, who scored 18 points on his own, added a penalty in the seconds either side of halftime to reduce the scoreline to 16-13.
Schoeman extended the lead before making two horror errors that swung the momentum and the game firmly in the visitors’ favour.
The first came as Schoeman threw a no-look inside pass which was intercepted by Province captain Chris van Zyl, with the ball sent quickly wide to Sevens blitz Werner Kok who sped down the touchline to score.
The Bulls worked their way back into the Province half, taking the lead with another Schoeman kick, but from the kickoff the flyhalf spilled the ball on his own line and Province capitalised shortly after as lock Jan de Klerk forced his way over from close range.
At 27-22 it seemed things were going against the Bulls but they simply never let up on attack, running from inside their own half with Ulengo surging upfield. As they edged closer they kept it tight, taking it through the forwards, with Jason Jenkins eventually finding a way across the line.
After turning down penalties several times, Du Preez put the visitors ahead with eight minutes to go.
But the Bulls never gave up and Van Zyl’s dart took them close, making it fitting when the scrumhalf went over from close range to send them into the final.
With the return of Piet van Zyl from concussion chances are his namesake Ivan won’t be in the 23 to Bloemfontein.
But that won’t matter for the halfback. His moment of glory will mean enough.
The Bulls will face the Toyota Cheetahs in Bloemfontein next Saturday in the final.
Vodacom Blue Bulls – tries: Travis Ismaiel, Jason Jenkins, Ivan van Zyl. Conversions: Tian Schoeman (3) Penalties: Schoeman (5)
DHL Western Province - tries: Nizaam Carr, Werner Kok, Jan de Klerk. Conversions: Robert du Preez (3). Penalties: Robert du Preez (3)