The Bulls are in the Vodacom Super 14 play-offs, but on the balance of the competition the Sharks were South Africa’s best team.
The Sharks scored more tries (42 to 41), but lost out by a single point in their points differential to a Bulls side that scored an extraordinary win against the sad Stormers in Cape Town.
The victory in Cape Town was special and you could only admire the effort in scoring the 32-plus points differential needed to qualify. That the Bulls did this with just 14 men for an hour of the match makes the achievement even more remarkable.
But when you strip everything away and remove all bias the Sharks produced the better rugby all season and had very little luck to show for it. The TMO ruled against the Sharks, just as it did against the Bulls, but the lack of luck was not in the TMO decisions. The Sharks lost Tony Brown at a crucial stage in the match against the Bulls, one in which they fought back magnificently to come within a converted try of saving the game. Ironically, if the Sharks had scored a converted try and drawn the match at Loftus, no South African side would be in the play-offs.
South African rugby needed a representative in the play-offs, to sustain interest in this country, but the wrong team got on the plane to Christchurch. It is a team that is not good enough to win back to back play-off matches overseas, whereas the Sharks would have posed a greater threat, simply because of their greater attacking game plan.
The Bulls will counter this, as Heyneke Meyer did after the win against the Stormers. Meyer said his team was the best of the South Africans because it had beaten the other four South African teams. He said they played the better attacking rugby and that four tries or more in every match against South African opposition supported his comment. He also said the Bulls deserved to be going to Christchurch. A week earlier he had said that the Bulls did not deserve to be in the play-offs on the basis of the defeat against the Crusaders at Loftus and a few other narrow misses. A week seems to be a long time in rugby.
I make the statement that the Sharks were the better team when you assess their progress from a year ago and compare it to the Bulls. The latter have not improved on last year, but have been as inconsistent. A year ago they threatened to take a home semi-final, but didn’t manage it and this year they were in a position to end in the top two but self-destructed.
Now compare this to a Sharks teams that ended 12 from 12 a year ago. They finished fifth, level on league points with the Bulls. Only the Crusaders scored more tries in the tournament (47) and they recovered from a one win from six matches situation to be a point away from qualification. The Sharks effort was mighty. The Bulls effort was only mighty in the manner they got through the back door.
The Bulls have some fantastic players. In Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha they have the best lock pairing in world rugby. In Bryan Habana they have the best finisher in the game. Jaco van der Westhuyzen, Fourie du Preez and Pedrie Wannenburg are class players, while Wynand Olivier is a great talent.
But if you picked a combined Sharks and Bulls team, the Sharks would have the greater numbers. More than that, had the two teams played in Durban, the Bulls would not have won.
The match was played in Pretoria, you will tell me, and the Bulls won. Well done to them, but it doesn’t change my sentiment that the wrong team got on the plane on Sunday.
15. Monty (Sharks)
14. Ndungane (Sharks)
13. Strauss (Sharks)
12. Olivier (Bulls)
11. Habana (Bulls)
10. Brown (Sharks)
9. Pienaar (Sharks)
8. Wannenburg (Bulls)
7. Botes (Sharks)
6. Britz (Sharks)
5. Matfield (Bulls)
4. Ackermann (Sharks)
3. Botha (Sharks)
2. Smit (Sharks)
1. The two teams cancel each other out here.