Depleted Bulls show fight, but Northampton too sharp in Champions Cup quarter-final

Bulls wing Sebastian de Klerk races away to score an intercept try against Northampton on Saturday night. Photo: BackpagePix

Bulls wing Sebastian de Klerk races away to score an intercept try against Northampton on Saturday night. Photo: BackpagePix

Published Apr 13, 2024


The Bulls never gave up, but ultimately, their lack of cohesion on attack and defence saw the Northampton Saints run out comfortable 59-22 victors in Saturday night’s Champions Cup quarter-final at Franklin’s Gardens.

The English Premiership log leaders will now face Leinster in Dublin in the semi-finals on the weekend of May 3-5 after the Irish giants saw off La Rochelle 40-13 earlier on Saturday, while Harlequins – who stunned Bordeaux 42-41 – will clash with the winners of Sunday’s last quarter-final between Toulouse and Exeter Chiefs.

Bulls boss Jake White came in for stinging criticism from rugby pundits up north for fielding a virtual ‘B team’ against Northampton shorn of most of his first-choice players, including Springbok stars Kurt-Lee Arendse, Willie le Roux and Canan Moodie.

— SuperSport Rugby (@SSRugby) April 13, 2024

But White would have been smiling at halftime as the Pretoria were trailing by just six points at 28-22.

The Bulls’ defence, though, fell apart in the second half as they conceded two quick tries to go 40-22 behind, and then star No 8 Cameron Hanekom received a yellow card for a dangerous tackle, which made the visitors’ already tough task insurmountable.

Considering the team that White selected, the Bulls produced a reasonable effort, but were outgunned by the high tempo of Northampton’s attack, which was too much to handle for the defence.

It wasn’t one-way traffic throughout, though, as the Bulls fought back from 7-0 and 14-7 down to make it 14-10 after 18 minutes, following a try by Hanekom – who was arguably the best Bulls player on the night – and Chris Smith’s conversion and penalty.

But with a number of Bulls players hardly having played in recent months, they were disjointed in their defensive organisation all night, even though they chased hard and fronted up physically.

Northampton were slick with ball-in-hand on attack, but the Bulls were also let down by some poor one-on-tackling – none more so in the 21st minute when wing Ollie Sleightholme brushed off up to six defenders in the 22 to score.

A few minutes later, it was 28-10 as the excellent scrumhalf Alex Mitchell dummied and darted over for Northampton’s fourth touchdown, and it looked like it was going to be a long night for the South Africans.

But bustling Bulls hooker Akker van der Merwe wasn’t going down without a fight, storming over on the blindside off scrumhalf Zak Burger’s pass, while impressive right wing Sebastian de Klerk grabbed an intercept try to make it 28-22 before the break.

— SuperSport Rugby (@SSRugby) April 13, 2024

White would have been optimistic that his team could pull off an upset at halftime, but it was not to be as first Northampton lock Alex Coles and then fullback James Ramm crossed the whitewash to settle the contest at 40-22 with more than half-an-hour to go.

— Investec Champions Cup (@ChampionsCup) April 13, 2024

De Klerk nearly had a second five-pointer after Hanekom made a big hit and flank Mpilo Gumede offloaded, but it was ruled out due to Hanekom’s dangerous tackle, which also resulted in a yellow card.

Northampton took advantage soon enough as centre Fraser Dingwall scored after a Bulls overthrow at a five-metre lineout, and then it was all about damage limitation.

White will now hope that his selection decisions pay off for the rest of the United Rugby Championship, starting with next Saturday’s clash against Munster at Loftus Versfeld.


Bulls 22 – Tries: Cameron Hanekom, Akker van der Merwe, Sebastian de Klerk. Conversions: Chris Smith (2). Penalty: Smith (1).

Northampton 59 – Tries: James Ramm (2), Courtney Lawes, Ollie Sleightholme, Alex Mitchell (2), Alex Coles, Fraser Dingwall, Juarno Augustus. Conversions: Fin Smith (7).