Pretoria - The Bulls deservedly won their Super 14 match against the Force 32-29 at Loftus Versfeld on Saturday despite scoring only three tries to the visitors' four - and, the fact that they remained tryless for the last 39 minutes could cost them a first place on the log and a possible home final.
Although they didn't get the bonus point try, the win was enough to keep the Bulls in second place on the log. However, with only two matches remaining, they will have their work cut out to overtake the log leading Hurricanes who are two log points ahead of them.
Saturday's first half was a very tight affair, with the lead changing hands four times before the Bulls went into the break at 15-10.
The Bulls were on top in the lineouts where the Force seldom got the clean ball they wanted. The Bulls also used their expected up-and-under tactic to good effect despite the odd one or two being too deep for the chasing players to get there on time, and played it wide often enough to threaten and on one occasion to score.
That was when Bryan Habana, smarting from criticism that he had lost pace, scythed through the Western Force backline to put his side back in front at 8-7 after the Force had gone ahead through a wonderful chip kick by Matt Giteau into no-mans land for Drew Mitchell to score.
The Force had their moments too, but the more promising attacks came from the Bulls who also let up through some half-hearted tackling on three occasions.
Referee Stuart Dickinson also cut short two promising Bulls moves, once - seven metres from the Force's tryline - penalising them for side entering before a ruck had formed and once when the ball was picked up off bodies on the ground which meant it wasn't a ruck. He also allowed both sides far too much leeway with the offside line at breakdowns.
Six minutes before the break, Giteau was on target with a penalty and then a bomb from Zane Kirchner was well chased. From the ruck on the Force goalline, prop Werner Kruger went over for an easy try. All he had to do was to pick up and score after Jaco Pretorius, in diving for the line, had lost the ball backwards.
The conversion put the Bulls 15-10 up at halftime.
Just a minute after the restart, Kirchner, who had joined the line, went over for an unconverted try from a full backline movement and Steyn added two penalties to put the Bulls up 26-10 after 53 minutes. Despite the Bulls' dominance after the break, it was the Force wing Cameron Shepherd who scored next from a full line movement (26-15).
Then came 20 phases of dominance and patience before the Bulls took it wide.
Prop Gurthro Steenkamp was centimetres short from the try and a bonus point, but another penalty from the under-pressure Force made it 29-15 with 11 minutes remaining.
The now almost expected Bulls lapse and loss of concentration in the last quarter had obviously set in. Josh Tatupu went over against the posts with nine minutes remaining and Bulls flyhalf Steyn off the field after a late charge (29-22). It was game on.
Then a scrum offence cost the visitors with Burton Francis kicking the penalty in Steyn's absence (32-22) before the visitors scored their fourth try through Ryan Cross going over for Giteau to convert.
At 32-29 and a minute left it was still anyone's game and, after withstanding a brief Bulls onslaught, the Force took two bonus points from the game to put them nine behind log leaders Hurricanes and unlikely to make the playoffs.
Tries: Bryan Habana, Werner Kruger, Zane Kirchner; Conversion: Morne Steyn; Penalties: Steyn (4), Burton Francis.
Tries: Drew Mitchell, Cameron Shepherd, Josh Tatupu, Ryan Cross; Conversions: Matt Giteau (3); Penalty: Giteau