“I am still the man” was the overriding message from flyhalf Morné Steyn as he steered the Bulls to a tense 18-16 Vodacom SuperRugby victory over the Sharks in Durban and maintained their position atop the South African Conference and in second overall.
It was not just the fact that Steyn was once again on-target with the boot, his six penalties accounting for all the Bulls’ points, but even more so the way he marshalled his side, won them the territory battle and kept their structure and game plan rock-solid under intense, Test-like pressure. And he did all that even though his team were massively on the back foot at scrum-time.
There is now surely little doubt Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer will call on Steyn to wear the number 10 jersey for the national side in their quadrangular Tests involving Italy, Scotland and Samoa next month.
Pat Lambie, who also kicked superbly at goal on Saturday but was not as assured in general play, will probably be on the Springboks’ bench as Steyn won the battle of the flyhalves at King’s Park.
The passionate Sharks produced a display of much thunder and fury, but little actual impact as the Bulls sat back and defended stoutly, waiting for the inevitable handling error and then kicking the Sharks back into their own territory, from where lapses in discipline could be turned into points by Steyn. Often, the Bulls used the rolling maul to push the Sharks back and force the infringement.
While the Sharks thoroughly dominated the scrums, they struggled in the lineouts and one sensed the Bulls knew their hosts would err in that set-piece when they kicked-off in the 75th minute, trailing 15-16 after Charl McLeod’s try had snatched the lead for the KwaZulu-Natalians. Steyn kicked deep, the chasers did their job and the Sharks conceded a lineout just inside their own 22.
Unfortunately for the hosts, Tendai Mtawarira grabbed the leaping Flip van der Merwe a fraction early, while he was still in the air, conceding a penalty which Man-of-the-Match Steyn was never going to miss whatever the acute angle.
Despite it being a beautiful winter’s day in Durban, the evening was cruel for rugby because of heavy dew and that led to masses of handling errors, particularly by the Sharks when they were in the Bulls’ red zone.
But rather than focus on the Sharks’ lack of skills, one should also credit the Bulls’ heavyweight forwards, who dominated the collisions to such an extent that the Sharks were unable to rely on the likes of Willem Alberts, Jean Deysel, Pieter-Steph du Toit and Mtawarira for their usual go-forward ball.
The Bulls’ joy was tempered somewhat by the news wing Bjorn Basson has been cited, having already received a yellow card during the game, for an innocuous tip tackle on Lambie as he tried to run from his own 22, while Van der Merwe was given an off-field yellow for legally rucking Keegan Daniel away from the wrong side of a ruck, in clear view of experienced referee Jonathan Kaplan, who correctly took no action.
So many words have been written in recent weeks on the poor quality of refereeing, anonymous assistant referees and ludicrous TMO decisions that are having such a detrimental effect on this year’s competition. It seems out-of-touch citing commissioners now want to have more of an impact on the game as well, heaping more frustration on coaches, players and fans.
The Cheetahs, meanwhile, are cooking up a thrilling conclusion to the conference race – next weekend’s match in Bloemfontein between them and the Bulls will be a vital humdinger – and they kept the pressure on the three-time champions by beating the Southern Kings 34-22 in Port Elizabeth.
The Kings certainly weren’t soft pushovers, and they led 12-6 heading into the half-time break. But they weren’t able to do much more than defend and rely on Demetri Catrakilis’s boot and the home side’s tryline was finally breached by the Cheetahs on the hooter.
Willie le Roux, who was in sublime form, showed great acceleration to burst through the defensive line on the blindside and Johann Sadie was on his outside to take the perfectly-timed pass and dash over for the opening try.
The third quarter was an exhibition of clinical rugby by the Cheetahs as they scored three more tries and, trailing 15-34, the match was over for the Kings on the hour mark.
Left wing Le Roux was once again at the centre of the action, his quick hands setting up Sadie for his second try and then the former Stormers and Bulls centre repaid the favour with a mazy run that Le Roux finished off for the bonus-point try.
Scrumhalf Piet van Zyl also showed a keen eye for the gap as he grabbed his third try in two games.
The Stormers, meanwhile, shrugged off suggestions from their demanding fans that the whole management and playing staff should be disbanded as they secured a 20-15 victory over the Reds at Newlands that was full of immense character and also helped the Cheetahs considerably.
Stormers coach Allister Coetzee had been forced to dip into the ranks of Western Province’s Vodacom Cup side, and even as far as the UCT team, by a raft of injuries. But he was fortunate that experienced hooker Tiaan Liebenberg returned from injury at the same time and the likeable veteran pulled the pack together in superb fashion.
Eben Etzebeth was immense as he and Gerbrandt Grobler dominated the lineouts and the defence was back to its best with the loose forwards, Siya Kolisi and Nizaam Carr in particular, and inside centre Damian de Allende the leading lights.
The Stormers also scored the only try of the game and the much-derided Elton Jantjies was at the centre of it.
Jantjies, who finally got to play the full 80 minutes, changed the approach of the Stormers’ attack early in the second half as his perfectly-positioned cross-kick was fielded by left wing Bryan Habana, who immediately popped the ball inside to fullback Joe Pietersen. Perfect interplay between Pietersen, cutting inside, and Jean de Villiers, racing up outside him, then saw the Stormers captain score a thrilling try that was ultimately the difference between the two teams.
The boot of Pietersen, with five penalties, was also an obvious factor in the Stormers’ win, but it was the determination and composure of the makeshift team that stood out most of all as the title challenge of the Reds continued to falter on African soil. The 2011 champions have now slipped from third to fifth behind the Cheetahs after losing both their tour games.
In the words of De Villiers himself: “To beat a team like the Reds when you have 16 players out says something, and what it says is that we have the right coaches and they are choosing the right players. This was one of the most emotional wins of my career.”