PRETORIA (AFP) –
Northern Bulls clinched a place in the Super 15 play-offs by dominating the second half to defeat fellow South Africans Golden Lions 37-20 at chilly Loftus Versfeld on Saturday.
The three-time title holders entered the final league-phase match in the southern hemisphere championship lying eighth, but the bonus-point win lifted them above Coastal Sharks, ACT Brumbies and Wellington Hurricanes.
Bulls now make the long journey to New Zealand for a showdown next weekend with seven-time champions Canterbury Crusaders while title holders Queensland Reds of Australia host the South African Sharks in the other play-off.
Table-toppers Western Stormers of South Africa and runners-up Waikato Chiefs of New Zealand receive byes into the semi-finals and will enjoy home advantage in Cape Town and Hamilton respectively.
Brumbies were the biggest losers of the weekend with a shock 30-16 home defeat by lowly Auckland Blues knocking them off top spot in the Australian conference and down to seventh on the combined table.
The team guided by 2007 World Cup-winning South Africa coach Jake White led the conference for most of the six-month league season only to be pipped at the post by the Reds, who finished first because they won more matches.
However, the Lions will be the saddest team after the final round as they not only finished bottom of the table with a meagre three wins from 16 outings, but are also facing exclusion from the Super 15 next year.
South African Rugby Union (SARU) officials promised early this year to give one of the five places reserved for the country in the 2013 Super 15 to the Eastern Cape-based Southern Kings at the expense of the team finishing last.
So unless the Lions merge with another franchise – they did combine with the Central Cheetahs from Bloemfontein in the past – they face a bleak future with the suspension of coach John Mitchell an additional problem.
The former New Zealand All Blacks handler was sidelined last month for allegedly verbally abusing several unnamed senior Lions, but the promised quick disciplinary action has not materialised.
Lions did win twice under caretaker coaches Johan Ackermann and former All Blacks fly-half Carlos Spencer and there was a hint of a surprise against the Bulls when they fought back to be level at 20-20 going into the break.
But the Bulls were more clinical after half-time and tries by scrum-half Francois Hougaard and flank Jacques Potgieter within eight minutes of the restart gave the home team a decisive 34-20 advantage.
The only other points came from a 65th-minute penalty converted by fly-half Morne Steyn, whose was back to his place-kicking best as he succeeded with four conversions and three penalties.
Wings Akona Ndungane and Bjorn Basson scored first-half tries for the Bulls while scrum-half Michael Bondesio and No 8 Josh Strauss dotted down for the Lions with fly-half Elton Jantjies converting both and kicking two penalties.