The Bulls produced their most impressive performance of the season to score a commanding 48-27 win over the Lions in Pretoria on Saturday.
As a result, the Lions – finalists for the last three years – failed to make the play-offs.
And it means the Bulls will travel to Wellington to face the Hurricanes in the quarterfinals next week.
The Bulls, after a frenetic start, held a 31-13 lead at the end of the first quarter – as they showed the Lions up for their naive arrogance.
The Lions somehow managed to close the gap to 27-31 just on the hour mark.
However, the Bulls greater skills and game management kicked in and they reopened 21-point lead.
The real difference was that the Bulls’ senior players all produced great performances – men like Handre Pollard, Duane Vermeulen and Rudolph Snyman.
In contrast, the Lions supposed senior players – the likes of Andries Coetzee, Elton Jantjies and Marvin Orie – played like rank amateurs, making naive mistakes, smacking of arrogance.
The Johannesburg-based Lions needed one point from the last match of the regular season at Loftus Versfeld stadium in Pretoria to secure a quarterfinal place.
But after scoring within a minute of the kick-off, they conceded four tries to trail 19-31 by half-time in the trans-Jukskei derby.
A Cyle Brink try narrowed the gap to just four points on 56 minutes, but the visitors then faded and conceded three more tries to finish a well beaten team.
The Highlanders from New Zealand were grateful to the Bulls as they crept into the quarterfinals, finishing one point above the Lions in the combined standings.
The Lions could not have wished for a better start as Hacjivah Dayimani scored just 15 seconds after the match began.
But the Bulls brushed off the setback to build a 31-13 lead before two Elton Jantjies penalties for the Lions narrowed the gap to 12 points by the break.
When Brink scored, the Lions must have sensed they had a chance of not only reaching the quarterfinals, but also avenging a heavy loss to the Bulls in Johannesburg this season.
Those hopes soon vanished, though, as the Bulls went on another try-scoring spree and skipper and playmaker Handre Pollard finished with 18 points.
The likely Springbok flyhalf at the World Cup in Japan from September is the leading Super Rugby points scorer this season with 188.
Hanro Liebenberg, Marco van Staden, Lizo Gqoboka, Burger Odendaal, Cornal Hendricks, Pollard and Manie Libbok were Bulls’ try scorers.
Pollard, who is moving to French Top 14 outfit Montpellier after the World Cup, also kicked five conversions and a penalty.
The Lions managed only two tries, from Dayimani and Brink, while Jantjies slotted a conversion and four penalties and Andries Coetzee kicked a drop-goal.
Man of the match: Tyrone Green produced his usual youthful exuberance. Hacjivah Dayimani showed his skills with ball in hand, although his defence needs some work. Vincent Tshituka and Cyle Brink showed the depth and talent the Lions have among the loose forwards. The Lions most productive forward was captain Malcolm Marx – carrying, tackling and winning some crucial turnovers. Warrick Gelant, Burger Odendaal and Rosko Specman all had a field day against the Lions’ somewhat haphazard defence. Duane Vermeulen was the physical presence that saw the Bulls pack bully the much-less experienced Lions forwards. Rudolph Snyman (his yellow card aside) was everything that was good about the Bulls – carrying well, tackling ferociously, doing the basics well and most of all making a royal mess of the Lions’ line-outs. Handre Pollard was once again the general that directed the troops, contributing 18 points – with a try, five conversions and a penalty. He wins our award.
For the Bulls:
Tries: Liebenberg 2, Gqoboka, Odendaal, Hendricks, Pollard, Libbok
Cons: Pollard 5
For the Lions:
Tries: Dayimani, Brink
Pens: Jantjies 4
Yellow card: Rudolph Snyman (Bulls, 47 – repeated foul play infringements, not using arms in the tackle)
15 Warrick Gelant, 14 Cornal Hendricks, 13 Johnny Kotze, 12 Burger
Odendaal, 11 Rosko Specman, 10 Handré Pollard (captain), 9 Andre Warner,
8 Duane Vermeulen, 7 Hanro Liebenberg, 6 Marco van Staden, 5 Rudolph
Snyman, 4 Jannes Kirsten, 3 Trevor Nyakane, 2 Jaco Visagie, 1 Lizo
Replacements: 16 Johan Grobbelaar, 17 Simphiwe Matanzima, 18 Wiehahn Herbst, 19 Eli Snyman, 20 Ruan Steenkamp, 21 Ivan van Zyl, 22 Manie Libbok, 23 Divan Rossouw.
15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Tyrone Green, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Elton
Jantjies, 11 Aphiwe Dyantyi, 10 Shaun Reynolds, 9 Ross Cronje, 8
Hacjivah Dayimani, 7 Vincent Tshituka, 6 Cyle Brink, 5 Marvin Orie, 4
Rhyno Herbst, 3 Carlu Sadie, 2 Malcolm Marx (captain), 1 Dylan Smith.
Replacements: 16 Jan-Henning Campher, 17 Nathan McBeth, 18 Johannes Jonker, 19 Reinhard Nothnagel, 20 Marnus Schoeman, 21 Dillon Smit, 22 Wandisile Simelane, 23 Courtnall Skosan.
Referee: Marius van der Westhuizen (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Egon Seconds (South Africa), Stefan Geldenhuys (South Africa)
TMO: Christie du Preez (South Africa)