There was relief and anger in the halls of Loftus Versfeld on Saturday night as the Bulls edged past the Sharks 43-35 to claim their first Vodacom SuperRugby win of the season, but in controversial fashion.
It was a much-improved display by the Bulls, especially in terms of a much lower error-rate, the intensity of their forwards and the fluidity of their attacking play, but their character was tested as the Sharks overturned a 22-33 deficit on the hour mark to lead 35-33 with eight minutes remaining.
In the end it was the Bulls who were celebrating not only a victory, but also a four-try bonus point.
For the Sharks, however, there was nothing but anger, most of it directed at TMO Johan Greeff, whose abysmal decision to award the opening try to the Bulls after a blatant forward pass must surely go down in the halls of shame for South African officiating.
“We’ve had a directive that we’re not allowed to comment publically when we’re massively disappointed about the performance of the officials, so I’m not going to comment,” was Sharks coach Gary Gold’s clever way of expressing his disgust.
The Francois Hougaard try in the 25th minute was an inexplicable error but the Sharks also felt hard done by when Greeff disallowed a 66th-minute dot-down after Odwa Ndungane was ruled to have knocked-on in leaping for a Pat Lambie cross-kick, and then allowed Jan Serfontein’s injury-time try that gave the Bulls a bonus point and denied the Sharks one.
“We’re told there was no clear evidence for an obvious forward pass and then Odwa gets called for a knock-on where the evidence wasn’t clear either. All we want is consistency,” Gold said.
There were only a handful of scrums in the game, but the Bulls won the set-piece battle thanks to the towering presence of Victor Matfield in the lineouts, and flank Lappies Labuschagne was an immense presence both in defence and carrying the ball.
Scrumhalf Rudi Paige then used the front-foot ball crisply and intelligently.
“We had quality possession and we squeezed them in the lineout, but it was a huge team effort. One of Rudi Paige’s strengths is that he allows others to play off him, he has good decision-making and it was great to see him make a huge difference. Lappies was also outstanding and is forming a great combination with Deon Stegmann and Pierre Spies, the balance is there,” Bulls coach Frans Ludeke said.
The Bulls front row, who managed to largely avoid a potentially awkward scrum contest due to there being fewer errors, were also pillars of the defensive effort and the strong driving play of the home side.
“It was an outstanding performance to cope with that pressure, it was great that we kept our composure although we went behind, and we always knew we had this in us. We were also more accurate at the breakdowns, which were a huge contest, and the players responded to Pierre because he led by example,” Ludeke said.
Captain Spies acknowledged that “a few 50/50s went our way compared to the last two weeks” and that the team would enjoy the win but would have to “stay balanced and focused”.