RugbyMatch Report

Formidable Bulls find a way as Leinster end another campaign without a trophy

Sergeal Petersen’s brilliant late try leaves Leo Cullen’s men with time to reflect on another frustrating campaign

Dejected Leinster duo Cian Healy and Caelan Doris following the defeat to Bulls in the URC semi-final at Loftus Versfeld Stadium, Pretoria, South Africa. Photograph: Christiaan Kotze/Steve Haag Sports/Inpho
URC semi-final: Bulls 25 Leinster 20

Leinster coach Leo Cullen would not be drawn on the clean-out that resulted in Jamison Gibson-Park departing for a HIA and not returning to their United Rugby Championship semi-final against the Bulls in Pretoria on Saturday as the Irish side ended their season without a trophy for the third successive year.

The scrumhalf reached over a Bulls player on the ground in the 56th minute and was instantly smashed with a no-arm tackle. It was one of many physical contests in a match that was level until 66 minutes, when Sergeal Petersen won an aerial contest with Ciarán Frawley and sped off to score his second try of the game to make it 25-20. There was no way back for Leinster.

“Yeah, Jamo goes off and I’m not sure about that clean-out there, but Lukey [McGrath] comes on and he’s a hugely experienced player, so I wouldn’t worry too much there,” said Cullen. “But obviously losing Jamo, I’m not sure exactly how bad it is but we’ll get him assessed and we’ll see.”

Otherwise, Cullen’s mood was stoic. Leinster faced an aerial game and a physical contest from the beginning with Willie le Roux and Johaan Goosen testing Leinster with crossfield kicks and high balls.


Despite the stronger start from the Bulls, Leinster struck first through left wing James Lowe who dived into the corner after 24 minutes, Ross Byrne converting for a 7-0 lead. The first try came just after Petersen was sent to the bin for a deliberate knock-on.

But within minutes the Bulls were under Leinster posts with Goosen angling his run and converting for 7-7, the half closing with a penalty for the home side and a 10-7 half-time lead. Leinster, pointedly, were unable to capitalise on having the extra man.

“Yeah, it was an unbelievably tight game wasn’t it? We knew that the Bulls would come out all guns blazing, hitting us in lots of different areas, [including the] aerial contest,” said Cullen.

“But again, just a couple of errors and we didn’t quite deal with a couple of different things. They were unbelievable skilled in that area of the contest – to win the ball for that try at the end. We had chances after that, but the Bulls were very resolute and dogged in defence and deserve a lot of credit for the way they won the game.”

Leinster's Robbie Henshaw tackles Embrose Papier of the Vodacom Bulls during the URC semi-final at Loftus Verfeld in Pretoria. Photograph: Christiaan Kotze/Inpho

Leinster started poorly after the break when centre Harold Voster kicked ahead and Petersen won the foot race for his first score, Goosen converting to make it 17-7. But Leinster responded well, Dan Sheehan opting to tap a penalty and test the Bulls. It was a clever move with Caelan Doris muscling in off second phase to make it 17-14.

By then the game was becoming sometimes overly physical with referee Sam Grove-White asking both captains to calm down their players. Byrne kicked a penalty to tie the game at 17-17 before Goosen made it 20-17 from the tee. Byrne responded again with another penalty for 20-20, striking it well despite a hail of booing from the crowd.

Just minutes later the Bulls launched a high ball into the Leinster 22 and the home side’s winger Petersen rose with replacement Leinster fullback Frawley and somehow plucked it from his arms to speed away for the crucial touchdown. Although Goosen didn’t convert, the Bulls’ stout defending largely kept Leinster pinned in their own half for the closing minutes.

A 23-phase attack was the best Leinster could offer as the entire bench was emptied before the hooter brought an end to play and Goosen kicked the ball into the stands to end another bitterly disappointing Leinster season.

“Yeah, like everyone’s gutted in the dressingroom there. It can leave you [with] a pretty empty feeling there,” said Cullen reflecting on both Pretoria’s Loftus Versfeld Stadium and Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, where Leinster lost to Toulouse in the Champions Cup final a few weeks ago.

“So much good work has gone into the season, we’ve had some amazing days over the course so there’s lots to be proud of, we’ve had unbelievable support. We haven’t been quite good enough A, in a final, and then B, when we’ve travelled away.

“Listen, it’s one of the toughest places to go to win a game, a playoff game, and you look back through the history of records, particularly in Super Rugby, and some of the wins that they’ve had here.”

Cullen and the players were left to do the only thing they can do, reflect and try to come back stronger next season.

Nizaam Carr, Ruan Nortje and Sergeal Petersen of the Bulls celebrate the victory over Leinster at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria, South Africa. Photograph: Lee Warren/Gallo Images/Getty Images

“But yeah, we’ll build again, we’ll go again and come back stronger,” he said. “We’ll get back to working hard and we’re the ones chasing again, so we’ve got to chase and whoever comes out on top in the URC, we’ll see where we sit in terms of Champions Cup and what it look like in terms of the draw etc.

“When you’re here you understand it, the crowd, the organisation, the set-up, everything about the place. So, we’ll go away and reflect, yeah, with the coaching group. Andrew Goodman will go away with Ireland and we’ve a new coach coming in and we’ll build and we’ll go again. But that’s for another day, so it’s [about] reflecting on how we can improve.”

SCORING SEQUENCE – 24 mins: J Lowe try, R Byrne con 0-7; 30: J Goosen try, Goosen con 7-7; 40: Goosen pen 10-7. Half-time 10-7. 42: S Petersen try, Goosen con 17-7; 49: C Doris try, Byrne con 17-14; 59: Byrne pen 17-17; 61: Goosen pen 20-17; 64: Byrne pen 20-20; 66: Petersen try 25-20;

BULLS: Willie Le Roux; Sergeal Petersen, David Kriel, Harold Vorster, Devon Williams; Johan Goosen, Embrose Papier; Gerhard Steenekamp, Johan Grobbelaar, Wilco Louw; Ruan Vermaak, Ruan Nortje (capt); Marco Van Staden, Elrigh Louw, Cameron Hanekom.

Replacements: Akker van der Merwe for Grobbelar (40 mins); Cornel Smit for Le Roux (56); Simphiwe Matanzima for Steenekamp, Francois Klopper for Wilco Louw, Nizaam Carr for Van Staden (all 61); Reinhardt Ludwig for Vermaak (66).

Yellow card: S Petersen (23 mins).

LEINSTER: Jimmy O’Brien; Jordan Larmour, Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, James Lowe; Ross Byrne, Jamison Gibson-Park; Andrew Porter, Dan Sheehan, Tadhg Furlong; Joe McCarthy, James Ryan (capt); Ryan Baird, Josh van der Flier, Caelan Doris.

Replacements: Rónan Kelleher for Sheehan, Michael Ala’alatoa for Furlong, Ciarán Frawley for O’Brien (all 51 mins); Luke McGrath for Gibson-Park (56); Jack Conan for Van der Flier (62); Ross Molony for Ryan, Jamie Osborne for Ringrose (both 68); Cian Healy for Porter (73).

Referee: M Adamson (SRU).

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson is a sports writer with The Irish Times