The Waratahs finals campaign appears to be in tatters after they fought hard but faded to their seventh loss this season against a lacklustre but stubborn Bulls in Sydney last night.
A radical reshuffle in the backs, the return of hard-defending centre Rob Horne and the season-starting debut of captain Rocky Elsom ignited the hopes of Waratahs' fans as the side maintained a lead over the South African conference leaders until the final few minutes. But the injection of talent and urgency – with a season in the balance – was just not enough to save them from the finishing class of the Bulls.
"That's a terrible result for us . . . we're going to have to live with the consequences," captain Rocky Elsom said from the sideline.
"We had the run of it for a lot of the game but just at the end there they played the style they're good at and it worked."
It was a try to prop Werner Kruger near the death, preceded by the inexperience of reserve forward Lopeti Timani, that gave the Bulls the win – their second in Australia this tour.
"We turned them over in their lineout and put enough pressure in their lineout that they made a mistake at the end of the game and then we didn't deliver the ball well at the scrum and that was the moment they were able to gather the momentum to get across the line," coach Michael Foley said, adding that Timani was not the sole contributor to that excruciating lapse.
"I'm more interested in ensuring Lopeti doesn't beat himself up at this point in time," he said. "There's a couple of little things we'd do differently if we had that situation again, Lopeti's role is one of them, but there's a couple of other guys who need to do their roles a little bit better in that situation as well."
The loss makes it four wins from 11 games for the Waratahs and one more loss than their six last season, when they scraped through to the finals with nine bonus points. It will be an uphill slog to save the season, starting today with a flight to South Africa for two tough fixtures against the Stormers and Cheetahs.
The Waratahs started as well as Foley has urged them to all season, going into the break with a three-point lead. The first 15 minutes alone was played almost entirely in the Bulls' half and this time – finally – the Waratahs decided to finish off the job with points.
But tries to centre Rob Horne and winger Atieli Pakalani, plus four penalty goals, weren't enough to withstand the Bulls' famously astute game of field position.
A glorious zig-zagging dummy run from centre Adam Ashley-Cooper sucked in two defenders and opened up a gaping hole through which outside centre Horne – fresh from a two-week suspension for dangerous tackling – dashed to give the Waratahs a seven point lead midway through the half.
Dean Mumm, a serial penalty-conceder, was sin-binned for taking out a lifter while he was in the air. It was his second penalty at the lineout and cost the Waratahs almost immediately, as the Bulls were able to equalise while Mumm was off the field with a try to halfback Francois Hougaard.
Barnes then edged the home side a penalty goal ahead to take the Waratahs into the break with a three-point lead.
After the break another three points was found but the Bulls snatched back a one-point lead just before the 60-minute mark with a try to winger Akona Ndungane. The Waratahs hit back less than five minutes later with a try to winger Pakalani but a penalty goal to the Bulls and Kruger's try spelled the end.
BULLS 27 (Francois Hougaard, Werner Kruger, Akona Ndungane tries Morne Steyn 3 cons 2 pens) bt NSW WARATAHS 24 (Rob Horne, Atieli Pakalani tries Berrick Barnes con Barnes 3, Brendan McKibbin pens) at Allianz Stadium. Referee: Chris Pollock. Crowd: 17,368.