The Bulls beat the Sharks 27-26 to secure a home semi-final and knock the Durban boys out of the tournament.
The Sharks scored their fourth try on the stroke of full-time, but time ran out on a campaign that promised so much in the early stages, but ultimately delivered nothing.
The Bulls now face the Crusaders in a replay of the 2007 semi-final and must fancy their chances of hosting either the Chiefs or Hurricanes in the final in a fortnight.
The Sharks, needing a bonus-point win to progress to the play-offs, were always going to play expansively. But they needed to blend the cavalier with the measured against a well-organised Bulls defence, which they struggled to do for the majority of the contest.
The expansive approach is usually either a hit or spectacular miss. This time it rested somewhere in between. They created chances playing in that manner, but either butchered those through a lack of composure – Beats Mtawarira’s double movement en route to the chalk a prime example of this – or just didn’t get the bounce of the ball – as Adi Jacobs will testify to when his hack ahead just before half-time wouldn’t sit up for collection with an unguarded tryline beckoning.
They profited when they played the percentages and used their powerful ball carriers to pound up through the phases. Why they didn’t do that more often is perplexing.
The Bulls could easily have got suckered into attempting to replicate the opponent’s approach, and they did at times, which then played to the Sharks’ strength from broken field and turnover ball. However, for the most part they maintained faith in the structured approach that brought them success this season, and gained the reward for doing so.
While they took advantage of the rare scoring opportunities they did have, it’s how they played without possession that was most impressive. They kept their shape and composure in defence under enormous pressure, and scrambled desperately when they were breached. It wasn’t pretty but the scoreline bears testament to the fact that it was very effective.
Morne Steyn clicked the scoreboard into action with a drop-goal before the Bulls broke open the contest with a try against the run of play – Zane Kirchner rounding off a move that veered left then swept right to expose a depleted defensive line.
But the Sharks sprung to life in a 10-minute period either side of half-time which ignited the dream that seemed improbable before kick-off.
They rolled back the years with a try from a driving maul – Keegan Daniel breaking off the back to touch down after they rumbled up for 10m. Rory Kockott missed the conversion, and with the score at 12-5 the Sharks were still three tries and a win short of a place in the semi-final.
However, they struck twice in quick succession – the first to Odwa Ndungane followed by a sensational long-range effort in which Ruan Pienaar, Ndungane and Mtawarira featured prominently. Pienaar was scragged 5m short, but Ndungane was in support to collect his desperate infield pass, and the winger threw a hopeful which Steven Sykes plucked out of the air to score.
Kockott succeeded with both conversion attempts, but the Bulls were in no mood to relent easily.
Seven minutes after his brother Odwa had played a role in breathing life into his team’s dreams, Akona scored to take the optimism in King’s Park down a notch. Steyn converted and sunk his second drop-goal soon thereafter, taking the Bulls to a 20-19 lead.
It was the scoreline that they beat the Sharks by in the 2007 final, and for a while it looked as of it would be the one that crushed their play-off ambitions. However, there was to be more drama to follow.
With the Sharks abandoning whatever semblance of caution they exhibited in search of a fourth try and the win, they were always going to give the Bulls scoring opportunities. The Bulls took the one they had, Danie Rossouw driving over after the Bulls again showed patience in their build-up play to break down the defensive line. Steyn added the extras to put the Bulls 27-19 ahead.
The Sharks, however, still believed, and launched an almighty offensive. Ryan Kankowski scored on the stroke of full-time and Kockott banged over a Sevens-style conversion and rushed back to receive the restart. But the siren sounded to break their hearts.
A brave effort, some would say. Others will lament the fact that they were even in this position at kick-off. The latter argument is probably the more solid one. The Sharks will have to try to redeem themselves next year, but this evening was all about the Bulls.
They were tactically sound, but that alone was never going to be enough. They blended tactical astuteness
with bags of heart to earn a crack at their second title in three years.
By Ryan Vrede