The Bulls have defeated the Crusaders 36-23 in front of a singing, dancing crowd at Loftus Versfeld this morning to set up a Super 14 final against the Chiefs in Pretoria next week.
The visitors were tipped to fall at the final hurdle against the highly-fancied Bulls, who earned the home field advantage by finishing first among the 14 teams in the regular season.
The Crusaders' defence was solid throughout the match, but the difference proved to be in the boot of the Bulls' first-five Morne Steyn, whose four drop goals shattered the dreams of Richie McCaw and his men even when their defence remained impenetrable.
The Crusaders received an early shock when star fullback Leon MacDonald left the field after a minute, the victim of a heavy clash. However he returned within minutes and stamped his class on the match, contributing two conversions and a penalty as the 2008 champions ran out to an early 20-7 lead.
Tries to Bryan Habana and Akona Ndungane, and two conversions from Steyn kept the home side within striking distance with halftime approaching.
The Crusaders were shocked again five minutes from the break when No. 8 Thomas Waldrom was sinbinned with the Bulls in possession only metres out from their line. Disciplined defence kept the Bulls from crossing over, but Steyn's magic boot bought the scores level with two drop goals in quick succession.
Sensing a shift in momentum with a minute left in the first half, the Bulls took a chance at the line. It paid off when No. 8 Pierre Spies broke loose and crossed for a five pointer which Steyn converted to complete a disastrous period for the Crusaders.
"We were a little bit shellshocked," McCaw told reporters at Loftus Versfeld.
"A lot of the guys have been through an experience like this, and hopefully they'll be better next year."
Bulls skipper Victor Matfield had praise for his team.
"Before halftime, the guys showed what they can do with a broken field," he said as chants and songs reverberated around the stadium.
It was an electrified crowd which welcomed the Bulls back to the field for the second half, but both teams abandoned the breakneck approach which marked the first half in favour of subdued play, with neither team looking to make mistakes.
The Crusaders nudged their way back up the scoreboard with a drop goal to halfback Andy Ellis in the 49th minute as the Bulls' mental and physical toughness appeared to show signs of faltering.
The game was almost blown wide open in the 55th minute when a runaway try to Bulls centre Jaco Pretorius was disallowed because of a forward pass. Habana continued to threaten but was contained by the Crusaders' defence.
Spies made another dash for the line in the 60th minute but was shut down only metres out, signalling another period of desperate defence for the Crusaders, and that was when Steyn struck again.
A penalty goal in the 66th minute pushed the score out to 30-23. Within five minutes, Steyn had landed two more drop goals and left the Crusaders' hopes of retaining their Super 14 title in ruins.
Matfield thanked the crowd for their support, and predicted a difficult Super 14 final against the Chiefs.
"It's awesome to play here. The Chiefs are playing well at the moment, and it's going to be tough next week."
Bulls 36 (Bryan Habana, Akona Ndungane, Pierre Spies tries; Morne Steyn pen, 3 con, 4 dropped goals) Crusaders 23 (Adam Whitelock, Kieran Read tries; Leon MacDonald pen, 2 con, Stephen Brett pen, Andy Ellis dropped goal). Halftime: 27-20.
- NZ HERALD STAFF