The Bulls began their quest for a fourth Super 15 title in five years with a 24-20 win over the Lions in an all-South African encounter at Ellis Park on Saturday.
The Lions lost all 13 matches last year and looked down and out when they trailed 24-5 at halftime, before staging a stirring second-half comeback.
“We left it a little bit late,” Lions captain Franco van der Merwe said. “Facing a kicker like Morne Steyn we must learn to keep our discipline.”
The hosts outscored the Bulls by three tries to two and kept them scoreless in the second half, but it was in the opening 40 minutes that the champions showed their class.
Much was expected of the new-look Lions after a number of off-season signings by billionaire owner Robert Gumede and the acquisition of former All Blacks coach John Mitchell.
Instead it was the Bulls, with 13 Springboks in their side, who laid down an early marker in the competition that has been expanded to 15 teams.
“We were very clinical in the first half, but made too many mistakes in the second, but we’ll always take an away win,” Bulls captain Victor Matfield said.
The Bulls, champions in 2007, 2009 and last year, scored two tries in the opening 17 minutes through fullback Zane Kirchner and winger Gerhard van den Heever, while Springbok flyhalf Steyn kicked 14 first-half points.
However, the Lions upped their game in the second period.
Debutant hooker Martin Bezuidenhout barged over in the 57th minute for a try converted by flyhalf Elton Jantjies and forward Warren Whiteley brought the fans to their feet four minutes later when he dived over.
The 20-year-old Jantjies then booted a 69th-minute penalty to set up a nailbiting finale.
SHARKS 24, CHEETAHS 9
In Durban, South Africa, the Sharks defeated the Cheetahs in their opening match after a dour battle of attrition in wet conditions, dampening any thoughts of running rugby.
Forwards Jacques Botes and Bismarck du Plessis scored the hosts’ two tries through close-range driving mauls in an impressive display by the pack, which showed why they are among the title favorites.
“It wasn’t champagne rugby, but we got the early-season jitters out of the way,” veteran Sharks captain Stefan Terblanche said. “The score might have been 24-9, but it was a lot tougher than that.”
The home side, whose captain John Smit was a late withdrawal because of injury, opened the scoring in the third minute when flanker Botes burrowed over from a rolling maul five meters out.
Flyhalf Patrick Lambie, who made his Test debut against Ireland in November last year, hooked the conversion, but made amends with a 10th-minute penalty which put his team 8-0 ahead.
Lambie’s opposite number, Naas Olivier, got the Cheetahs onto the scoreboard in the 34th minute with a penalty, then followed up with a second four minutes into the second half to reduce the deficit to two.
The two outside halves traded kicks in the second half before Springbok hooker du Plessis replicated Botes’ driving effort to seal the win with 10 minutes remaining.