Bulls 34 Ulster 16
Ulster’s mini-tour to South Africa ended with back-to-back defeats for the first time this season as a second-half surge from the Bulls saw them secure a bonus-point victory over the Irish province.
Ulster had led 9-3 at half-time but, from there, they coughed up too many scores in the heat and altitude of Loftus Versfeld, with the visitors only managing a Luke Marshall try and Nathan Doak conversion throughout the whole second 40 minutes, during which the Bulls racked up 31 of their total.
However, another controversial call contributed to undoing Ulster's cause after Kieran Treadwell was yellow-carded in the 65th minute for what was deemed a high hit on Kurt-Lee Arendse after TMO Marius Jonker's intervention.
At that point, Ulster trailed by just 20-16 and appeared to have wrung some momentum back from the Bulls and former Kingspan favourite Marcell Coetzee, but they quickly shipped another converted try, even though Coetzee was also binned shortly afterwards. His hit on Marcus Rea might have been deemed a red card.
For Ulster, it was not ideal preparation ahead of next weekend’s European last 16 clashes with Toulouse, starting in France, and one point from their last two URC games will have hurt their league campaign, particularly when a win should have been theirs from the previous game with the Stormers.
Even though Ulster lost Ethan McIlroy early after a collision with Madosh Tambwe, they provided all the early pressure, though could only manage a Doak penalty after 10 minutes.
The Bulls' first shot at the posts, from Chris Smith, failed to connect four minutes later, though he was accurate from in front of the posts after 24 minutes, following former Bulls star Duane Vermeulen's high tackle, to tie the scores.
Vermeulen made up for that on the half hour, his jackal allowing Doak slot his second penalty to put Ulster ahead in a game which was becoming increasingly scrappy as both sides struggled to retain possession.
Doak’s third penalty duly arrived with five minutes left in the first half, this time from the halfway, the scrumhalf using Pretoria’s altitude to his side’s advantage.
The Bulls coughed up yet another penalty just on half-time though, this time, Doak pushed his kick wide to the right and the sides left the field with Ulster leading 9-3.
It looked costly and was so as just after Tambwe had lost the ball on the Ulster line, Ian Madigan was adjudged to have knocked the ball forward and from the Bulls' five-metre scrum, Coetzee was awarded a try after referee Andrea Piardi consulted with Jonker.
Smith converted the 42nd-minute try and the Bulls led for the first time and stretched that lead 10 minutes later when Smith landed his second penalty.
Tambwe then got his try when Michael Lowry was unable to hold Madigan’s pass. Smith added the two and the Bulls looked in control at 20-9.
But there was another twist to come as after Madigan's missed touch from a penalty, Johan Grobbelaar threw crooked to the lineout near the Bulls' line and from the scrum, and with penalty advantage, Marshall burst through to score, Doak's conversion cutting the Bulls' lead to 20-6.
But Treadwell’s subsequent yellow card proved to be the game-changer.
The Bulls hit the corner from the penalty and Grobbelaar was on the end of the driving maul. Morne Steyn’s conversion made it 25-16 to the home team.
Coetzee was then shown yellow, but the home side then bagged their bonus point after Doak’s pass was intercepted and run in from distance by Kurt-Lee Arendse. Steyn again converted.
BULLS: K-L Arendse; C Moodie, C Hendricks, H Vorster, M Tambwe; C Smith, Z Burger; G Steenkamp, J Grobbelaar, M Smith; W Steenkamp, R Nortje; M Coetzee (capt), C Brink, E Louw.
Replacements: L Mapoe for Hendricks (6 mins), A Botha for Brink (h-t), R Hunt for M Smith (64), S Matanzima for G Steenkamp, M Steyn for Smith (both 65), R Ludwig for W Steenkamp, K Johannes for Burger (both 73), J van Zyl for Grobbelaar (78).
Yellow card: Coetzee (73).
ULSTER: M Lowry; B Moxham, J Hume, L Marshall, E McIlroy; I Madigan, N Doak; A Warwick, B Roberts, M Moore; K Treadwell, I Henderson (capt); J Murphy, N Timoney, D Vermeulen.
Replacements: S Moore for McIlroy (2 mins), T Stewart for Roberts, E O'Sullivan for Warwick, T O'Toole for Moore (all 49), Matty Rea for Vermeulen (50), Marcus Rea for Murphy (62), J Cooney for Madigan (65).
Yellow card: Treadwell (65).
Referee: A Piardi (Italy)