CAPE TOWN – Ruan Nortjé scored the winning try in the final move of the game as the Bulls hit back from a 17-7 deficit to clinch a last-gasp 31-27 victory over the Stormers at Loftus Versfeld on Friday night.
The bonus-point triumph stretched the Pretoria side’s lead at the top of the Rainbow Cup SA log to seven, as they moved to 20 points, with the Stormers shifting up to 13.
Now it will be up to the Sharks (11 points) to keep the race alive for a place in the June 19 final by beating the Lions at Ellis Park on Saturday afternoon.
Lock Nortje screamed in delight after he barged his way over after a number of pick-and-go movements in the last minute of the game.
Jake White’s team were not at their sharpest throughout, though, as they were met by a committed Stormers defence, who forced the home side into mistakes.
The Capetonians raced into a 10-0 lead in as many minutes after an early Tim Swiel penalty, while Damian Willemse pounced from an Edwill van der Merwe kick-through – after Cornal Hendricks’ offload went to ground.
But then the Stormers were rocked by a somewhat unlucky yellow card to Willemse for a deliberate knock-down, when he had gone in to tackle Bulls fullback David Kriel.
The Bulls took full advantage, with flank Marcell Coetzee – who produced a typically busy performance – bursting through the middle of a lineout drive.
There were further problems for the Stormers when centre Rikus Pretorius also got a yellow card for a deliberate knock-down – which was justified – but Steven Kitshoff’s men showed tremendous grit on defence to hold the Bulls out, although they lost scrumhalf Herschel Jantjies, who was replaced by Godlen Masimla.
Worse was to follow for the home side when captain Duane Vermeulen limped off with an ankle injury, while Elrigh Louw was denied a try due to a Coetzee neck roll at a ruck.
In a see-saw battle, the Stormers hit back, with Man of the Match and No 11 Edwill van der Merwe sparking a counter-attack that saw Pretorius get close to the line, before the left wing showed his class with some nifty footwork to beat Hendricks and score.
At 17-7, it looked like the Bulls were finally going to relinquish their unbeaten Loftus record under White, but they displayed outstanding fighting spirit in the second half.
Impressive hooker Johan Grobbelaar kick-started the comeback with a maul try, and six minutes later, the Bulls No 2 got his second of the night to take the Bulls into a 21-17 lead.
The Stormers, though, were not done yet. Almost straight from the kickoff, Swiel put Rosko Specman into space, and the No 14 sped past Stravino Jacobs and returned the inside pass to his flyhalf for a sensational touchdown.
Swiel missed the conversion, though, and Steyn landed a penalty to regain the lead for the Bulls at 24-22.
But that man Van der Merwe put on his dancing shoes once more to score his second try, and at 27-24, it seemed as if the Stormers had done enough to triumph.
The Bulls’ lineout fell apart as they lost three of their own throws in a frenetic final quarter, but they were able to win a few scrum penalties to set up the late charge.
And Nortjé became the hero with the last move of the match.
Bulls 31 – Tries: Marcell Coetzee, Johan Grobbelaar (2), Ruan Nortjé. Conversions: Morné Steyn (4). Penalty: Steyn (1).
Stormers 27 – Tries: Damian Willemse, Edwill van der Merwe (2), Tim Swiel. Conversions: Swiel (2). Penalty: Swiel (1).