Belligerent Bulls down Sharks

RYAN VREDE writes the Bulls produced their best performance of the season in beating the Sharks 32-23 at King’s Park.

Welcome back you Bulls. Where have you been all this time? Your surrogate was shocking. We missed the real deal.

Bulls captain Victor Matfield tweeted in midweek that this was one of the most important games of his career. I’m sure his sentiments were shared by his team-mates because they played like a team whose chance of a title defence rested on victory.

The defending champions were sublime on a night most had tipped their hosts to oust them. After two emphatic but largely meaningless (beyond the rekindling of some lost confidence) victories over minnows, the Sharks were always going to be a truer measure of the Bulls.

They passed this test, dominating every facet of play that counted. Their superiority in the collisions was the most notable feature. They put in an immense shift, and their efforts in this regard nullified the Sharks’ ability to play the high-tempo game they hoped to, as they simply could not get the momentum they needed at the gain line for that approach to be successful.

This meant their back division were often serviced with slow, scrappy ball, and were constantly under pressure from a hard-pressing defensive line. The result was lateral, easily repelled attacks, and a plethora of handling errors, the latter undoubtedly terminal to their cause.

Mention must also be made of the Bulls’ variation in attack. To date they’ve relied too heavily on their halfbacks, Fourie du Preez and Morne Steyn, to kick for field position. But they somehow recalled the tactical flexibility that was the outstanding feature of their title-winning campaigns of 2007, 2009 and 2010, to great effect.

Certainly Steyn’s boot was still prominent in open play. However, when he did kick it was rarely the booming up-and-unders that have become commonplace in this campaign. His nudges – be it through or over the defensive line, or picking out space behind the Sharks’ back three – were precise. When Steyn wasn’t driving the Sharks back into their territory, the Bulls were a hybrid of pick-and-drives around the ruck fringe, patient phase play up the middle, or speedy, expansive forays.

The match also signalled Bulls lock pairing Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha’s return to something resembling full potency, the latter his typical physical self, while the former tormented Bismarck du Plessis at the lineouts.

The Sharks hooker will take aim at Botha and Matfield later this year with the Springboks, but tonight they invaded his psyche. Early in the first half he overcooked a feed that the Bulls snapped up, and five phases later Francois Hougaard ran a brilliant line off Du Preez’s shoulder to score.

Steyn converted and the Bulls soon pulled further ahead thanks to some charitable defence, Botha driving over from close range after the defensive line had been depleted. Steyn banked the extras, Pat Lambie responded with a 55m penalty, but the Bulls’ pivot would add six more points to take his side into a 23-6 lead at the break.

Sharks coach John Plumtree would have lambasted his side for their inability to control ball, as well as for their fundamental handling errors, and they responded, exhibiting greater composure and reaping the rewards for doing so. Steyn extended the lead to 20 points, but Du Plessis sparked hope of a comeback with a try, and Lambie slotted the conversion and a penalty thereafter to further erode the deficit.

But the Bulls reacted in a manner befitting champions. Steyn continued his goal-kicking masterclass, dropping two more penalties. He has been ordinary to date, but tonight showed his value in a Bulls team operating at full tilt.

Adi Jacobs scored a converted try late in the piece, but the result had already been sealed. The Bulls’ chance of achieving a wildcard placing is still alive, and, ominously for future opponents, they seem to be kicking into gear when others are showing signs of fatigue.