Bulls flyhalf Morne Steyn kicked the winning conversion two minutes from time to complete a stunning 25-23 win over the Cheetahs on Friday in an all-South African Super rugby match.
The defending champions looked down and out when they trailed 23-8 going into the final quarter, but two late tries by two of their most experienced players, Danie Rossouw and Fourie du Preez, turned the tide against their inexperienced opponents.
The latter’s score tied the match in the 78th minute, leaving Steyn the chance to administer the last rites with his trusted right boot and the metronomic Springbok flyhalf made no mistake.
“We should have finished them off,” Cheetahs captain Naas Olivier said. “We put in a great performance, but didn’t win the game.”
The Cheetahs, who lost their opening match against the Sharks last week, were dealt a blow when their inspirational captain Juan Smith left the field in the second minute with a knee injury.
Home flyhalf Olivier, nevertheless, put his side 3-0 ahead with a penalty, before the Bulls, who beat the Lions the previous week, scored the opening try through lock Bakkies Botha in the 17th minute.
Winger Gerhard van den Heever made a telling break and 72-Test veteran Botha was on hand to dive over in the right-hand corner after sustained pressure.
Steyn made it 8-5 with a penalty, but the Cheetahs responded from the kickoff when center Andries Strauss ran 25m to dive over and level the scores.
Strauss, who won his Springbok colors against the Barbarians in December, ran a perfect line off another replacement, loose forward Ashley Johnson, to split open the visiting defense.
Olivier and Steyn missed five kicks between them in the opening stanza, but Olivier still put his team ahead two minutes before the break when he potted a second penalty.
The Cheetahs increased their lead to 10 within two minutes of the restart when center Robert Ebersohn crashed over after another telling break from Johnson and Olivier converted.
Johnson, who had replaced Smith’s flanker partner Frans Viljoen after 23 minutes, capped off an industrious cameo performance when he crashed over from close range in the 48th minute to increase the lead to 15 points.
The Bulls, forced to play catch-up rugby, upped the pace in the final quarter and were rewarded when replacement flanker Rossouw dotted down after a backpedaling Cheetahs scrum produced a loose ball near their own line. Steyn converted to reduce the deficit to eight.
The flyhalf then upped the tension when his second penalty made it a five-point game, before scrumhalf partner Du Preez leveled the scores with a try three minutes from time.
Steyn nailed the conversion to give his team the narrowest of victories.
“It was an ugly win, but we’ll take that over nice losses,” winning captain Victor Matfield said.