Champions Cup: Five takeaways from Bulls v Exeter as the South Africans power to a bonus point victory

The Bulls avenged their 44-14 defeat at Sandy Park by securing a 39-28 bonus point victory over Exeter Chiefs at Loftus Versveld on Saturday in the Champions Cup. Credit: Alamy
The Bulls avenged their 44-14 defeat at Sandy Park by securing a 39-28 bonus point victory over Exeter Chiefs at Loftus Versveld on Saturday in the Champions Cup. Credit: Alamy

The Bulls avenged their 44-14 defeat at Sandy Park by securing a 39-28 bonus point victory over Exeter Chiefs at Loftus Versveld on Saturday in the Champions Cup.

In their first match without Jake White, who is recovering from emergency surgery, the Bulls did not disappoint as a full-strength side lived up to their promise and swept aside the former tournament winners.

It was an energy-sapping and attritional encounter, so much so that referee Mathieu Raynal lasted just 50 minutes before he needed to be replaced.

The matchday official pulled a hamstring as the high-paced clash at altitude took its toll on the players and referee.

Meanwhile, the two powerhouse outfits – renowned for their physicality in their respective domestic competitions – did not disappoint in the abrasive battles of the match, but the home side did get the upper hand where it mattered most.

Here’s our five takeaways from the match in Pretoria.

Bulls pack fronts up

It was clear from the outset that Exeter knew the threat that the Bulls pack possessed as Jack Innard threw the first lineout short to the front, avoiding the Bulls‘ lineout jumpers.

While that tactic secured possession for the visitors, it mattered little as the Bulls won a turnover at the following breakdown thanks to some brilliant breakdown work from Marco van Staden.

That was the first morale-boosting victory for the Bulls, as the pack would dominate most of the match. Gerhard Steenekamp and Mornay Smith were comfortable victors in the front-row battle despite taking on Test internationals Scott Sio and Harry Williams.

When Rob Baxter made the changes in the front-row, it did not swing the momentum as the Pretoria-based side maintained the upper hand.

The Bulls soundly beat Exeter in the scrums and applied the pressure at lineout time as the visitors mixed up their options, throwing short to the front or right over the top, making it difficult for them to launch their strike plays.

Exeter’s maul has been a cornerstone of their game over the years, but they were just able to set it well enough for most of the match, with the one exception coming for their second try as Solomone Kata finished off the score.

Eskom powers the Bulls

While South Africa’s power utility, Eskom, fails to supply the country with power, the Bulls’ namesake, Marco ‘Eskom’ van Staden lived up to his nickname by knocking Exeter’s lights out.

It took him just two minutes to stop an attack dead in its tracks with a terrific turnover, setting the tone at the breakdown. His fellow flanker Nizaam Carr also had a field day in the rucks as the pair drove the Bulls upfield for the opening score.

He carried with real vigour throughout the match and showed off his softer skills with a neat inside ball leading to Elrigh Louw’s try.

He continued to be a nuisance at the breakdown, and whenever the Premiership side looked to have a sniff, Van Staden came to the rescue with another turnover, bloody-faced all.

His success at the breakdown forced Exeter to pile bodies into the rucks for on their ball, limiting their options on their feet and with further threats in Carr, Johan Grobbelaar, Bismarck du Plessis and Louw driving the Bulls to victory.

Slade shines despite sending off

Henry Slade was on top of his game in the opening half of the match as he looked to impress the new England coach staff ahead of the Six Nations.

He was defensively sound and proved to be a real threat on attack, throwing a superb skip pass to assist Josh Hodge’s try.

The Exeter captain kicked well, too, with his booming boot further boosted by the altitude as he got his side into great positions to strike from.

However, that all unravelled in the second half when the replacement referee red-carded him for his tackle on Bulls’ full-back Kurt-Lee Arendse.

Hopefully, for Slade’s sake, Steve Borthwick will have taken note of his first-half performance more than his second when it comes to selection, as the 29-year-old looks to be in fine form.

Bulls’ backline takes shape

White has recently been tinkering with his matchday squads as his side battles on both fronts in the URC and Champions Cup.

But the Bulls’ mentor may have finally found his best backline, and it was the same one named to face the Ospreys last week. Chris Smith was named to start that match but was ruled out through illness. This week he took the pitch in the starting number 10 jersey and showed that he could be the man to take this team forward.

Smith brought a calming presence to the Bulls’ attack throughout the match, and his game management seemingly improves from match to match. While he did have the odd error or two, especially when kicking penalties into touch, overall, it was a solid outing from the Bulls playmaker.

While Johan Goosen filled the role last week and steered the side to victory, the veteran playmaker provides the Bulls with an injection of flair and sometimes control to see out matches. His versatility makes him a huge asset in the replacements.

However, the most significant improvement to the Bulls’ backline has been further out wide, with Wandisile Simelane settling into the outside centre role.

Simelane played most of his rugby at the Lions in the position but was pushed to full-back and wing upon his arrival at the Bulls, with his defence being the main contributing factor.

There was a significant improvement in this area of his game, particularly in this clash, as Exeter were shut down on several occasions by the Bulls’ line speed. His interception try highlights his improvements in defence while gaining over 100 running metres and shows that he can still be a threat despite not being afforded the space that comes with the 15 jersey.

The balance of having Harold Vorster on his inside certainly aids Simelane, as does the defensive prowess of David Kriel and Canan Moodie.

Finally, the continued outstanding performances of Arendse are the final piece of the puzzle. Arendse has taken his form from the Springbok jersey back into the Bulls’ jumper, producing on both sides of the ball.

He made three clean breaks against Exeter, continually proving to be one of the most elusive players in world rugby.

Final thoughts

Things are falling back into place for the Bulls after a troublesome December. When they do select their first team, they look far more like the side that toppled Leinster last season to reach the United Rugby Championship final. Their pack certainly looks to be one that could front up with the best the Champions Cup offers.

Meanwhile, Baxter won’t need to dig too deep to understand why Exeter was on the wrong end of the result this week. His pack were beaten upfront for most of the encounter and would have certainly been better off if they had the likes of Jonny Gray and Luke Cowan-Dickie available.

READ MORE: Bulls claim bonus-point win over Exeter in high-scoring game while La Rochelle strike late to break Ulster hearts

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