The Vodacom Bulls stuttered after an excellent first half to go down 32-23 in their Vodacom United Rugby Championship match against Ulster on Saturday night.
The Bulls led 20-12 at the break and looked like they were absorbing the pressure thrown at them from the home side, but eventually succumbed after borderline decisions started going against them and Ulster got the home crowd behind them.
The Ulster rolling maul was used to devastating effect in the second half, and eventually took them to the lead, while John Cooney’s cruel 80th minute penalty took away what would have been a deserved bonus point for the Pretoria side.
It was hard not to feel for the Bulls as they struggled not only against a partisan crowd in the second half, which was expected, but also some strange calls - especially from television match official John Mason - which overshadowed the game and were very costly for the Bulls.
In the first half Mason intervened after the referee had deemed a clean out by Marco van Staden on Jacob Stockdale to be perfectly legal, and turned an innocuous moment into a penalty for Ulster that led to their second try.
But it was the moment in the second half that really became perplexing. Bismarck du Plessis put in a perfectly legal tackle on Billy Burns, wrapping his arm and taking Burns down, but the whiplash of Du Plessis tackling Burns’ back caused Mason to once again intervene - and this time it was deemed a yellow.
Former Springbok captain Bob Skinstad protested over the commentary and even the SuperSport panel agreed it was a legitimate tackle, but Du Plessis was off the field for 10 minutes at a crucial time when the Bulls were building momentum and hoped to go for the win.
Instead it led to Cooney’s penalty kick that took away the Bulls bonus point and ended the night on a sour note for the Pretoria side.
But the TMO aside, the Bulls will be kicking themselves for letting the lead slip from their grasp, especially after the first half looked as if they had dug themselves out of their recent hole and were playing with speed and tempo.
Unfortunately for them, some poor tactical decisions in the second half, and the inability to exit cost them dearly as Ulster stormed back into the game.
And as the momentum changed, the 50-50 calls started to go against them.
It also meant that Ulster achieved a Grand Slam of wins against South African sides, beating all four this season in a first in the URC. It also means the Bulls, now in seventh spot and overtaken by Connacht, will be in a fight to stay in the top eight in the last two matches of the season.
The first half had seen Ulster score first after they caught the Bulls defence shifting inwards and moved the ball out to Robert Balouccoune to go in at the corner.
But where the tourists may have faded, the return of Kurt-Lee Arendse and Canan Moodie proved to be a masterstroke as they inspired their teammates in that first half to greater heights.
It was Moodie’s audacity to chip over the defence and collect that led to the first try, shifting the ball at the right time to Arendse to sprint through and score.
Hooker Tom Stewart went over from a rolling maul to get Ulster back in the lead before the Bulls once again pounded their line and Zak Burger found his way over to put the Bulls into the lead. With Chris Smith’s boot they turned at 20-12 up.
But the second half started in disaster. The Bulls were pinned from the kickoff for being in front of the exit kick, the penalty went to the corner and Stewart went over to make it a one-point game.
In the process Elrigh Louw was given a yellow card for an infringement at the maul and the Bulls had to battle on.
Nathan Doak made it a four point game with a penalty shortly afterwards before Stewart got his third to stretch the lead to 26-20.
The Bulls pulled back a penalty before Doak extended the lead once again as the Bulls scrum was repeatedly penalised in the latter part of the game.
But they did start to build momentum and were in Ulster’s half when the second TMO intervention came and Bismarck was given his marching orders. The momentum was stunted and John Cooney sent the ball through the middle to end the game, and leave the Bulls with a very bitter taste from the match indeed.
Ulster - tries: Tom Stewart (3), Robert Baloucoune. Conversions: Nathan Doak (3). Penalties: Doak, John Cooney.
Vodacom Bulls - tries: Kurt-Lee Arendse, Zak Burger. Conversions: Chris Smith (2). Penalties: Smith (3).