The Bulls fought relentlessly for their first win of the Vodacom SuperRugby campaign and, with some good fortune finally going their way, it came with a thrilling 43-35 triumph over the Sharks at Loftus Versfeld on Saturday night.
It was a much better performance by the Bulls, who made far fewer errors than on the opening two weekends, and had more fluidity on attack thanks to Rudi Paige starting at scrumhalf. This time they turned their pressure into points, mostly through the metronomic boot of flyhalf Handre Pollard, who piled on four penalties and three conversions in a faultless display before he left the field with cramp in the final quarter.
The Bulls just kept the scoreboard ticking over and led 33-22 on the hour mark thanks to Pollard’s last kick, before the Sharks pushed them all the way in a determined comeback.
Paige, so influential as a link man with his quick, clean service, tried a box-kick from the kickoff after Pollard’s penalty and his opposite number, Cobus Reinach, as alert an opportunist as you can get, charged down the kick and raced away to score a try that brought the Sharks strongly back into the game. As a tactic, the box-kick was debatable with Pollard behind him and the Bulls having carried the ball to much better effect up till then.
But Paige’s technique was also lamentable, with the scrumhalf stepping sideways from the base of the ruck to kick and not backwards, and there were no pillars shielding him, allowing Reinach to charge him down.
The Bulls began to falter under the pressure and, as silly errors crept in, the Sharks took the lead for the first time in the 72nd minute through two Pat Lambie penalties.
It was starting to look as if the Bulls, for all their endeavour, were going to lose their third successive home game and it was definitely not good news for them when Paige and Pollard went off with cramp.
But it was Pollard’s replacement, Tian Schoeman, who made a crucial play in the 75th minute when he kicked an angled, pressure penalty six metres from touch after the Sharks had entered a ruck from the side.
It was heartening to see the Bulls fight back, but it was a surprise when they won another penalty in the final minute and opted instead to kick for touch and try and chase the bonus point try.
Their positive attitude was rewarded however, even though the Sharks stole the lineout, as, trying to run from their own 22, the visitors knocked on and centre Jan Serfontein showed enormous strength to gather and force his way over the tryline.
The try was awarded by TMO Johan Greeff and it was mildly controversial. An earlier decision by him to award the Bulls a try was frankly disgraceful and it is high time this serial offender when it comes to poor decisions is retired.
The awful decision came in the 25th minute and up till then Pollard and Lambie had traded penalties for the Bulls to lead 9-6.
Fullback Jesse Kriel had sparked a counter-attack off turnover ball for the Bulls but he then threw a blatantly forward pass to Hougaard, who showed good pace and a nifty step inside, to dot down. It was referred to TMO Greeff who inexplicably gave the try, apparently saying that the replays he had were inconclusive!
Pollard converted and the Bulls had a 10-point lead, but it did not last long as Lambie kicked another penalty and then flank Renaldo Bothma, who had a strong game with ball-in-hand for the Sharks, charged through after claiming a kick-off, gave a lovely backhand offload to fullback SP Marais, who sped down the right before the ball went infield to eighthman Ryan Kankowski, who raced away for the try.
The Bulls had the final say before half-time, however, as they grabbed their second try.
Handling errors and wrong options had prevented them from turning pressure into points in their previous two games, but on Saturday night they were slick, patient and clever on attack.
A period of strong driving play and concerted pressure softened the Sharks defence before eventually the hole opened for the Bulls and Paige read the situation brilliantly to provide the perfect pass for flank Deon Stegmann to storm through.
The Bulls led 23-16 at the break and, although Lambie narrowed the lead to 23-19 early in the second half with another penalty, the next try also went to the home side.
Another patient, slick build-up in the Sharks’ 22 ended with Pierre Spies galloping around the ruck at the perfect moment for the perfectly-timed pass by Paige and the Bulls captain charged over for the try in what was a fine all-round game for the eighthman. The big star for the Bulls amongst the forwards, however, was flank Lappies Labuschagne, a tireless and powerful defender and ball-carrier.
Pollard’s conversion put the Bulls 30-19 ahead, but with Lambie also succeeding with every kick at goal and the Sharks certainly up for the fight, there was still plenty of hard work ahead for the Bulls.
That they managed to pull off the win, with a bonus point while denying the Sharks one, will be a massive confidence boost for the beleaguered three-time champions.
Bulls: Tries – Francois Hougaard, Deon Stegmann, Pierre Spies, Jan Serfontein. Conversions – Handre Pollard (3), Tian Schoeman. Penalties – Pollard (4), Schoeman.
Sharks: Tries – Ryan Kankowski, Cobus Reinach. Conversions: Pat Lambie (2). Penalties – Lambie (7).