MARK KEOHANE, in his weekly Business Day column, says the Bulls were unable to cope with the Sharks’ intensity at Loftus.
This was the 80-minute performance Sharks coaches John Plumtree and Grant Bashford had demanded. This was the reason so many believe the Sharks are SA’s premier side. This was a Saturday night when players did their talent justice and delivered for themselves and their loyal support base.
The Sharks required something monumental to beat the Bulls at home and they produced a colossal effort to end the Bulls’ charge for a third successive Super Rugby title.
The winning margin flattered the hosts, who scored in the 39th minute and the 78th minute to threaten the miracle of escape. But the Sharks were not to be denied the rewards of a performance that combined brute force with the wizardry of French flyhalf Frederic Michalak, the poise of fullback Pat Lambie and the power running of wing JP Pietersen.
The Sharks’ attack was the best it has been this season because the forwards won the collisions, the set phase was strong, and Michalak and Lambie offered so much variation in their roles.
The Sharks lack a midfield and second row of international class, but at Loftus every player exceeded expectations and some may spend their careers seeking another such performance.
To beat the Bulls in Pretoria the opposition players have to sustain an intensity that is unrelenting. The Sharks did this and the hardened hosts didn’t quite have the pedigree to resist.
Victor Matfield, Bakkies Botha and Fourie du Preez ended their Bulls careers with defeat — the Bulls’ third in Pretoria this season — but these legends of the game did not go quietly. Botha provided early thrust and confrontation. Matfield was desperate and dutiful and Du Preez’s introduction in the final quarter didn’t give him enough time to influence the result.
The Bulls gave it everything and this was a match won by the Sharks and not lost by the Bulls. The better side on the night won. The Sharks forwards did the job and with a stable and consistent platform, flyhalf Michalak’s game management helped define the result.
Lambie certainly ensured his place in the Springbok World Cup squad as a utility player. He is good, whether he wears 10, 12 or 15, and Pietersen is playing even better than he did in 2007.
It was a brilliant night for South African rugby and again reinforces the optimism that a successful Springbok Rugby World Cup defence is possible.
The Stormers’ win in Bloemfontein was never going to match the Sharks’ victory for drama and intensity and it all seemed a little after the fact.
Not that it was any less impressive: the reshaped backline delivered the expectant result and Bryan Habana even managed to get over for a try.
Peter Grant’s return at flyhalf gave the Stormers direction and their attack was more fluid and decisive. Jean de Villiers, Jaque Fourie, Gio Aplon, Duane Vermeulen, Andries Bekker and Schalk Burger were at the forefront of everything and Francois Louw again ruled the breakdown. Louw’s international fall from grace is not justified and you won’t convince me that he doesn’t belong in a Bok training squad, at the very least.
The Stormers, with a home semi-final in a fortnight, have the easier route to a final, with the Sharks in New Zealand this weekend against the Crusaders.
The international travel in this competition means every home team starts with an advantage, but you would have to be pretty one-eyed not to acknowledge the incredible journey of the Crusaders to win the New Zealand conference. They haven’t played a match in Christchurch because of the earthquakes that destroyed their city and claimed the lives of many of their friends.
The romantics would want to gift them the title, but the Sharks have never been known to romance the opposition and that match will be the highlight of the weekend’s play-offs.
The Blues, at home, should beat the Waratahs, who never travel well to New Zealand, and the conservatives would pick a Reds vs Blues semi-final in Brisbane and a second visit of the season to Cape Town from the Crusaders.
The tournament organisers will believe they got the format right as two teams from every conference qualified and the play-off finalists were determined only in the last weekend of the regular season. The crowds in SA and Australia have never been bigger and television audiences have also improved.
The rugby, though, hasn’t matched the hype around the tournament expansion.
Matches like the Sharks’ win against the Bulls have been too rare in a Super Rugby season that combined too little of the exceptional with too much of the mediocre.