The men from Pretoria trailed 26-14 just before the hour-mark, with indiscipline proving costly, before their pack shifted into top gear and muscled them to a hard-earned come-from-behind victory.
The New Nation Pumas won the breakdown battle but were dominated at scrum time, where they conceded a penalty try, and couldn’t contain the physicality of the Vodacom Bulls when it mattered most.
The defending champions scored five tries in all as they took another step towards sealing a home semi-final.
The New Nation Pumas got off to a hot start with eighthman Khwezi Mafu breaking the line before the visitors were twice blown up for not rolling away. The Lowvelders turned down both kickable penalties and it paid off as flank Niel Otto forced his way over under the uprights. Namesake Niel Marais’ conversion made it 7-0 after five minutes.
Otto produced the goods again as he won a breakdown penalty; Marais was this time instructed to kick at goal and the veteran flyhalf sent the ball through the middle to make it 10-0 in as many minutes.
Ali Mgijima was pinged for putting in a big hit on Johan Goosen without the ball and it was the error the Vodacom Bulls needed to get on the board, which they did through hooker Schalk Erasmus from the back of a driving maul. Goosen, who was class personified in a Champion of the Match performance, added the conversion.
The Vodacom Bulls then found their mojo and superlative phase play from within their half led to Stravino Jacobs strolling in after a touch of class by Zak Burger. Goosen was successful with the conversion as the visitors took the lead for the first time.
The men in blue were once again guilty of not rolling away and it cost them three points as Eddie Fouché slotted his first kick at goal in the 35th minute. The playmaker had come on for Marais 10 minutes earlier after the latter injured himself in a tackle on Lionel Mapoe, a last-minute replacement for fellow Springbok Cornal Hendricks at No 12.
The New Nation Pumas finished strong and after well over 10 phases, they were rewarded with a penalty and Fouché made no mistake to give his team a 16-14 lead at the break.
The hosts were down to 14 men just two minutes into the second half as Alwayno Visage was yellow-carded for a high tackle on Goosen. The defending champions looked like scoring but a knock-on by Jacobs led to a costly turnaround as Sebastián de Klerk ran some 90 metres to score at the other end. Fouché’s conversion pushed the 14-man New Nation Pumas’ lead out to 23-14.
As the home team returned to full complement, the Vodacom Bulls lost Stedman Gans to a yellow card, also for a high tackle. The Lowvelders capitalised quickly through a Fouché penalty goal but Jake White’s outnumbered charges struck back with another unstoppable driving maul that saw replacement hooker Jan-Hendrik Wessels dot down on the hour-mark. Goosen couldn’t add the extras but the lead was cut to seven.
The Pretoria side’s pack came on strong, winning a scrum penalty and mauling the ball up once more before Wessels was held up over the line. The danger was far from over, though, and a monster shove at the ensuing scrum saw referee Aimee Barrett-Theron award a penalty try, which made matters all square with 14 minutes left on the clock.
Momentum was well and truly with the Vodacom Bulls and they hit the front in the 71st minute, Gans producing a dangerous run before tighthead Mornay Smith was rewarded for his dominant scrummaging with a maiden Carling Currie Cup try. Goosen nailed the important touchline conversion to give the visitors a seven-point lead.
The Vodacom Bulls had an opportunity to sew up the result when they were awarded a penalty with two minutes to go. Curiously, it was Smith who stepped up and missed his first kick at goal. The hosts regained the restart and instead of gunning for the draw, they opted to settle for a losing bonus point as they kicked the ball into touch to end the game.
New Nation Pumas 26 (16) – Tries: Niel Otto, Sebastián de Klerk. Conversions: Niel Marais, Eddie Fouché. Penalty goals: Marais, Fouché (3).
Vodacom Bulls 33 (14) – Tries: Schalk Erasmus, Stravino Jacobs, Jan-Hendrik Wessels, Penalty try, Mornay Smith. Conversions: Johan Goosen (3).