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Saturday 28 January 2023 Dublin: 4°C
Deon van der Merwe/INPHO Connacht's Josh Murphy with Elrigh Louw of the Bulls.
# Second best
Connacht slip to another URC defeat as Bulls prove too strong in Pretoria
Andy Friend’s side fell to a 28-14 defeat at Loftus Versfeld.

Bulls 28

Connacht 14

CONNACHT’S DIFFICULT START to the new United Rugby Championship season rolls on after the province fell to a disappointing 28-14 defeat to the Bulls in Pretoria.

Andy Friend’s side are still searching for the first win of the season, having lost to Ulster and the Stormers in the opening two rounds. And the province are now winless after three games having been well beaten by Jake White’s Bulls at Loftus Versfeld.

This game always looked like a testing challenge for the province but they will be bitterly disappointed by the manner of their performance, the visitors never really looking capable of troubling the Bulls as their accuracy and execution repeatedly let them down.

It took the home side just two minutes to break through the Connacht defence, the Bulls bulldozing their way over with a powerful driving maul from a five-metre lineout, with Johan Grobbelaar crashing over. However, after a lengthy TMO check the score was crossed out for a flying wedge. Connacht survived, but had been handed an early warning of the Bulls’ physical threat up front.

The opening score soon followed and came courtesy of good work by two returning Springboks in the Bulls’ gifted backline. John Porch, under pressure from Canan Moodie, spun a loose pass to his left near the halfway line, where Kurt-Lee Arendse was on hand to scoop up the ball and sprint home from distance, beating Mack Hansen in the footrace for the line.

A second Bulls try quickly followed, with former Sevens star Moodie again involved, bursting forward and using his footwork before Zak Burger added the finishing touch from close range.

A difficult start continued for Connacht when David Hawkshaw – making his first start at 10 for the province – dragged a penalty attempt wide after excellent work in the air by Hansen.

john-porch-tackled-by-canan-moodie Deon van der Merwe / INPHO John Porch is tackled by Canan Moodie of the Bulls. Deon van der Merwe / INPHO / INPHO

Connacht then enjoyed a rare spell of possession in the Bulls 22, but the move came to an end with Dave Heffernan forced into touch. From the next play, the Bulls went end-to-end as Connacht offered their hosts far too much time and space, but Hansen recovered well to gather a kick and chase and kill the attack.

A testing, error-ridden opening 20 minutes ended with Connacht threatening to break from deep as Porch and Tom Daly linked up, only for Porch’s return pass to sail forward.

The Bulls were then reduced to 14 when they saw Marco van Staden sent to the sin-bin following a dangerous tackle, and they received another blow shortly after when the electric Moodie was forced off injured.

Yet even with a man advantage, Connacht just couldn’t build any momentum as the errors piled up, with Hansen – one of the few Connacht players to start the game brightly – fumbling a pass out of his hands and into touch.

In short flashes, Connacht did manage to show glimpses of their quality. Hawkshaw ran some smart lines in possession, and Kieran Marmion produced a sumptuous pass out the back to release Hansen. Yet every time Connacht looked like they might find a gap, they were suffocated by blue jerseys.

The half came to an end with the Bulls thundering their way towards the Connacht line, and while the visitors initially held out, Marcell Coetzee eventually muscled his way over, Goosen again converting to push his team 21-0 clear with the last action of the half.

Connacht looked more comfortable on the ball in the early stages of the second period, but were dealt another momentum-sapping blow five minutes after the restart when the Bulls pounced for their bonus-point score.

Van Staden was perhaps fortunate not to be pinged in stripping the ball from Oran McNulty at the breakdown, a steal which allowed the Bulls break from deep again, David Kriel finding second row Ruan Nortje, who punched through a gap in the Connacht defence before releasing Burger, who ran in his second try of the evening. Goosen made it four from four off the tee as the Bulls moved 28-0 clear.

The Bulls were then reduced to 14 men for the second time when Goosen hit Marmion with a high tackle that resulted in a head-on-head clash. Referee Andrea Piardi took his time before settling on a yellow card due to “a low level of danger.”

finlay-bealham Deon van der Merwe / INPHO Finlay Bealham of Connacht Deon van der Merwe / INPHO / INPHO

Friend sent in a new front row, with Peter Dooley, Jack Aungier and debutant Grant Stewart all entering the action, and the fresh legs were soon providing their team with some big moments, Dooley getting the plaudits after a big shove at the scrum resulted in a Connacht penalty.

Connacht went on the offensive and Jan-Hendrik Wessels became the third Bulls player to visit the bin when he was yellow-carded for a late hit on Hawkshaw.

Playing with penalty advantage, Connacht finally registered their first score of the game when Aungier showed good strength to power over from close range. Hawkshaw converted to leave the score at 28-7 heading into the final 10 minutes.

A lengthy stoppage then followed due to an injury to Bulls winger Sbu Nkosi, extended by some confusion around uncontested scrums with the Bulls temporarily down to 13 men.

The game began to open up for Connacht in the closing minutes, and Porch looked to have added their second try after getting on the end of a move which saw the ball pass through the hands of Hansen and McNulty. However replays showed that McNulty’s place to Porch was forward and the score was crossed off.

Moments later Connacht did strike for their second, Hawkshaw doing well to block down Chris Smith’s attempted clearance, gathering the loose ball and scoring under the posts before converting his own try. 

Friend will take some comfort from seeing his team show some fight in the second half, but the contest had long slipped out of their grasp.

Bulls scorers:

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Tries: Arendse, Burger (2), Coetzee.

Conversions: Goosen [4/4]

Connacht scorers:

Tries: Aungier, Hawkshaw.

Conversions: Hawkshaw [2/2]

Penalty: Hawkshaw [0/1]

BULLS: Kurt-Lee Arendse; Canan Moodie (Lionel Mapoe 25), Cornal Hendricks, David Kriel, Sbu Nkosi (Chris Smith, 70); Johan Goosen, Zak Burger (Embrose Papier, 61); Gerhard Steenekamp, Johan Grobbelaar (Jan-Hendrik Wessels 25), Francois Klopper (Mornay Smith, 58); Walt Steenkamp (Simphiwe Matanzima, 58) Ruan Nortje; Marcel Coetzee (captain), Marco van Staden (Reinhardt Ludwig, 58), Elrigh Louw.

Yellow cards: Van Staden, Goosen, Jan-Hendrik Wessels.

CONNACHT: Oran McNulty; John Porch, Tom Farrell, Tom Daly, Mack Hansen; David Hawkshaw, Kieran Marmion; Denis Buckley (Peter Dooley, 59), Dave Heffernan (Grant Stewart, 61), Finlay Bealham (Jack Aungier, 59); Leva Fifita (Gavin Thornbury, 52) Oisín Dowling; Josh Murphy (Ciarán Booth, 59), Conor Oliver (Shamus Hurley-Langton, 52), Jarrad Butler (captain).

Referee: Andrea Piardi (FIR)  

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