The Bulls withstood a fierce fighback from the Sharks to emerge victorious in a thrilling Vodacom Super 14 match at Loftus Versfeld on Saturday.
After flying into a comfortable 27-3 lead at the break, the Bulls were a little complacent as the Sharks fought back to trail 34-27 with just minutes remaining. But in the end it proved too little too late as the Durban side’s semi-final hopes lay in tatters. The Bulls march on with the dream still a possibility.
The result confirms, if not entirely emphatically, that the power in South African rugby still lies up north at Loftus. At halftime, some might have been trumpeting that it had regained its Fortress status, but the Sharks showed in the second stanza that they are an emerging force in this country.
The last of these epic encounters between these two teams is a long way off. At Loftus on Saturday was witnessed what could be the first of several monumental clashes in the coming years.
The match though was a classic game of two halves as South Africaâ€™s two heavyweightâ€™s slugged it out blow for blow. If this had been a boxing match, the Sharks would probably have been counted out before the interval.
Instead they emerged from the tunnel for the second stanza and immediately showed a far greater aptitude to the task at hand. Gone were the silly errors and dropped passes of the first half.
Suddenly the Bulls had a game on their hands.
But earlier, the Bulls threw the script out of the window in the first 40 minutes as they played irresistible rugby that had the Sharks clutching at shadows most of the time. They had notched their bonus point for four tries by the 28th minute and with it a chance to make the semi-finals.
A crucial encounter with the Crusaders looms on Friday night at Loftus and victory is imperative if the Pretoria side is to make their second play-off in-a-row.
Although many of the 50000 fans crammed into Loftus were wearing black and white, that counted for little as Heyneke Meyerâ€™s team emphatically showed that the rugby power in the land still lies in the north.
The Sharks tried hard and defended with guts and determination, but when replacement hooker Bismarck du Plessis â€“ on for Heinke van der Merwe for a matter of minutes â€“ was sin-binned late in the first half, the writing looked to be on the wall – it showed the Bulls had achieved their goal of disrupting the organised and disciplined Sharks.
The second half though was an incredible turn-around as John Smitâ€™s team took the famed Bulls pack on and finally started to win some lineout ball.
The Bulls were probably guilty of taking the foot off the pedal, but that excuse is rubbish, because as the Sharks turned up the heat, the Bulls gave it their all and were outplayed in the second period by a Sharks team that showed both passion and flair.
However, such was the Bulls dominance in the first 40 minutes that they had done just enough to win this classic.
Bulls - Tries: Gary Botha, JP Nel (2), Bakkies Botha (2). Conversions: Morne Steyn (3). Penalty: Steyn.
Sharks - Tries: Percy Montgomery, Andries Strauss, Albert van den Berg, AJ Venter. Conversions: Montgomery (2). Penalty: Tony Brown.
By Andrew Hollely, at Loftus Versveld
78 mins: Bulls steal it, but Sharks charge. Penalty to Bulls for offside. Jaco puts it out on Sharks 10m line.
77 mins: It’s tense as the Bulls attack, but have Morne Steyn yellow carded for a swinging arm. Penalty Sharks. They tap and run. Eventually it’s a lineout to Sharks on Bulls 10m line. A converted try to tie the scores…
75 mins: The Sharks are not finished and have the Bulls on the ropes and AJ Venter bursts through for a try that sets up an classic finish. Monty converts. (Monty 2/4) BULLS 34-27.
71 mins: The Sharks are peppering the Bulls line and the Bulls keep infringing, but Fotuin is keeping his cards firmly in his pocket. But the Sharks keep coming and are rewarded with a try after deliberation by the TV to Albert van den Berg. Monty adds extras. (Monty 1/3) BULLS 34-20.
69 mins: Sharks are taking Bullls on up front and the pressure is telling. It’s still all the Sharks. Bulls on back foot. But the defence is firm. Sharks are throwing everything at the Bulls and the home side is creaking a little, but ultimately holding strong.
65 mins: Sharks have not given up. Another penalty is put into touch by Monty. Lineout Sharks. They drive, then spread it left. John Smit, then AJ Venter take it up, but they lose it. Penalty Sharks for offside. Lineout Sharks about 10m out. But Matfield comes away and it’s hoofed into touch near halfway.
62 mins: It’s now all the Sharks. They are as dominant as the Bulls were in the first half. They attack again and a try is on the cards, but Pierre spies intercepts and puts JP Nel away for a score against the run of play! Steyn converts. (Steyn 4/6) BULLS 34-15.
58 mins: The Sharks get a second in as many miinutes when Odwa Ndungane sprints clear and puts Andries Strauss in for another try. Monty misses. (Monty 0/2) BULLS 27-15.
57 mins: From the ensuing move, a maul rumbles forward to within 5m. When it becomes a ruck, Pienaar sends Monty away for the Sharks first try. He fails to convert his own five-pointer. (Monty 0/1) BULLS 27-8.
55 mins: Albert van den Berg secures and the Sharks burst away. Brent Russell is bobbing and weaving, but Fortuin brings them back for a penalty. Lineout to Sharks just inside Bulls 22.
53 mins: AJ Venter takes and the Sharks drive it close, but when it matters the cough it up. Bulls come away and charge into Sharks half, but in their eagerness, infringe and the Sharks get a penalty. Monty kicks it out. Lineout to Sharks.
51 mins: Both teams look a little out on their feet. Bulls are not really trying anything too expansive. they seem to be defending the lead, which could be dangerous, but then again the Sharks have not threatened. And they have lost confidence in a shaky lineout. Still a penalty is awarded and Monty kicks to touch, about 10m out.
48 mins: The Sharks are running everything, but they have no composure. A penalty tap inside their own 22 should heave been kicked out. They are pinged for forward pass and the Bulls swarm again, but the final pass is forward. Penalty Sharks at the scrum.
46 mins: Bulls drive from lineout and Fortuin pinges Sharks for collapsing the maul. Again they take the lineout about 10m out. And drive. Good defence keeps them out. Scrum Sharks 5m from own line.
44 mins: It’s getting a little scrappy as both teams knock and the Bulls get the scrum. They are just kicking now and a lineout forms on the Bulls 10m for the Sharks. Penalty Bulls for Sharks pulling Matfield down. They take the lineout option upto the 22.
42 mins: Sharks attack with purpose soon after the second half gets under way. The Sharks look hungry and get a lineout 5m from the Bulls line. The Bulls disrupt and the ball spills from Smit’s hands and out. Lineout Bulls. Matfield takes and the ball is hoofed over halfway.
38 mins: Sharks scrummed Bulls off their ball, Bulls come away and Jaco kicks it out. Quick throw byt Sharks, Fortuin is not happy. Free kick Bulls. Sharks get it back and attack, but there is no backline. They have the scrum for an earlier infringement on the Bulls 10m line.
36 mins: Sharks trying to regroup and attack through John Smit and AJ Venter just inside the Bulls half but nothing is working. Scrum Bulls on their 10m line.
34 mins: Bulls are camped in Sharks 22, but the Sharks defend well to earn a turnover. Relieveing kick to halfway, but the Bulls steal the ball. A grubber is smothered and the Sharks breathe again.
32 mins: It is still all the home side as they are creating chance after chance. A knock helps relieve the pressure on the Sharks. Scrum Sharks. The Bulls have hit their straps and are playing their best rugby of the year. The Sharks by comparison are nowhere near their potential. Sharks lineout deep in their half.
28 mins: It’s going from bad to worse. Bismarck du Plessis on at hooker for Heinke van der Merwe for a matter of minutes is shown yellow by JC Fortuin for a spear tackle. Down to 14 men, the Sharks are vulnerable and the Bulls smell the fear and sweep up field again. And it’s Bakkies Botha with a show and go for his second and his team’s fourth try. Mesmerising. The Sharks don’t know what’s hit them. Steyn misses the extras.. (Steyn 3/5) BULLS 27-3.
25 mins: It’s all falling to pieces for the Sharks as the Bulls are running like they have been stung by something very big. Another opportunity in the Sharks danger zone results in a penalty and Steyn is on song now. (Steyn 3/4) BULLS 22-3.
21 mins: It’s a see-saw battle of cut and thrust. Bulls charge in Sharks territory and get the maul going inside the 22. Immense pressure sees several goes at the line, before the ball is swung left and Victor Matfield feeds Bakkies who dives over near the corner. Morne Steyn slots the two. (Steyn 2/3) BULLS 19-3.
18 mins: Sharks rumble forward after restart, but it is slow ball. Bulls are awarming in defence, but they have moved too quickly. Penalty to Sharks for offside. From the other side, Brown lines it up and…no mistake. (Brown 1/2) BULLS 12-3.
15 mins: Sharks scrum on halfway after 22 kick, but they butcher it. Bulls with the ball and they attack quickly, moving the ball left then right. Eventually JP Nel scythes through the smallest gap for try number two! Steyn gets the extras. (Steyn 1/2) BULLS 12-0.
11 mins: Sharks win the lineout against the throw, but Bulls get it back and attack through Frikkie Welsh into Sharks half. Penalty Sharks. Lineout to visitors on Bulls 10m line. Strauss gathers long ball. Sharks set up ruck. Monty half through a gap. Sharks controlling possession well. Into Bulls 22. Penalty Sharks for offside. Brown takes aim from 25m out and…misses! (Brown 0/1)
8 mins: Free kick to Sharks. They sweep up field, but Habana secures the high ball and Steyn clears to halfway. Lineout Sharks. Bulls win the ball. JP Nel running hard and causing problems, but Sharks hack ahead only for Mkhize to see the ball dribble out when he had no defence to beat.
7 mins: Its all the Bulls, as the Sharks defend desperately. Bulls keeping it close. Good tackling by visitors. Sharks have driven Bulls back to near halfway, but it’s a scrum to Bulls for a knock.
5 mins: From the kick-off, Bulls secrure and get a penalty. Again its kicked out. Bulls drive. Sharks penalised again. Fourie du Preez takes quick tap 5m out, but loses the ball. Sharks scrum. They clear to 10m line. Bulls lineout.
3 mins: Bulls drive from lineout and crash over Sharks line. Gary Botha has a try! Steyn misses the conversion from almost in front. (Steyn 0/1). BULLS 5-0.
1 min: Morne Steyn kicks off. Habana secures. Bulls attack. Ruck. Ball comes back for Bulls. Tim Dlulane knocks. Sharks scrum 30m from own line. Pienaar clears. Bulls boot it back. Sharks attack and Strauss drops the ball. Penalty. Bulls kick it out. Lineout 10m from Sharks line.