But Bulls coach Frans Ludeke remains defiant and is hopeful his team can still make the play-offs if they win all their remaining games, including two tough encounters – against the Brumbies in Canberra next week followed by a tricky encounter against the Rebels in Melbourne – before closing off the round robin stage with a derby against the Cheetahs at home.
While the Bulls would have woken up this morning still on top of the South African conference, it could change dramatically and they could find themselves in third place and out of play-off contention if the Stormers beat the Rebels and the Lions record a win against the Cheetahs today.
The Bulls have a slender one-point lead over the Stormers and a four-point lead on the Lions, meaning a win for the Stormers will see them lead the South African conference and replace the Bulls in third spot on the combined log, while a bonus-point win for the Lions will also catapult them above the Bulls and leave the three-time Super Rugby champions languishing out of the top six and in serious doubt of making the play-offs.
For Ludeke and his men, there will be a lot of soul-searching as they head off to Australia to complete the second half of their tour and very much aware of how critical the match against the Brumbies will be next Friday.
With the scoreboard in Rotorua yesterday telling the sorry tale of a Bulls team comprehensively beaten and not deserving to be in play-off contention, Ludeke refused to accept that his team are in a downward spiral.
Instead, he said they were much better than what the score reflected.
The Bulls did show good intent and a willingness to turn the tables on the Chiefs in the first half and reaped the reward through two tries, by Jan Serfontein and Bjorn Basson, and a penalty by Handré Pollard to take a 15-3 lead within the first 15 minutes of the first half.
But it swung in favour of the home side in the latter stages of the first half as the Bulls allowed the game to open up and the Chiefs, being masters of the running game, took advantage by scoring two tries in four minutes.
Captain Liam Messam and wing Bryce Heem hauled their team to a 15-all stalemate at the half-time interval.
The Chiefs killed off the contest in the 54th and 56th minutes when scrumhalf Augustine Pulu scored back-to-back tries to give the hosts a 29-15 lead.
Though the Chiefs had Sam Cane yellow-carded for a professional foul and the Bulls were able to score a try through Lappies Labuschagne, the writing had long been on the wall and a Tim Nanai-Williams try at the death confirmed the dominance the Chiefs enjoyed in the last hour of the game.
“Last week against the Blues it was a different story. I thought the team had a much improved performance,” said Ludeke from Rotorua.
“We created a lot of opportunities and were in the game until the end.
“We had a fantastic first half and in the second period they scored two quick tries and we had to fight to get back into the game.
“The way we kept fighting and creating opportunities showed there was no lack of effort.
“I thought we missed one or two opportunities to convert pressure into points. I don’t think we are on a downward curve. We played well and the Chiefs are a quality side.”
Ludeke, though, understands that all the toil this season may hinge on one game – against the Brumbies – and to a lesser extent the Stormers-Rebels and Cheetahs-Lions matches today.
But critical will be how the Bulls bounce back in the Brumbies clash and break a nine-match losing streak abroad, or they might as well throw in the towel on a season that held much hope prior to their tour.
“It is never easy on tour. We need to get a good, solid performance worthy of a result,” concluded Ludeke.
The Bulls will also be sweating over injuries picked up by Springbok prop Trevor Nyakane and star fullback Jesse Kriel, who limped off the field in the opening five minutes of the game after sustaining a knock to the knee.
Nyakane was replaced in the second half after sustaining what seemed like a hip flexor injury. The extent of the injuries will only be known Sunday or Monday.
Original source: Bulls’ play-off blues