The Bulls held off ferocious mobs of Sharks players and an unsympathetic referee to claim top spot on the Vodacom SuperRugby log with a thrilling 20-19 victory at Loftus Versfeld on Saturday night.
The Bulls were trailing 13-19 with just seven minutes remaining, but managed to put an evening of immense frustration and testing behind them and snatch victory through a try by replacement scrumhalf Jano Vermaak, converted by sharpshooting flyhalf Morne Steyn.
The embattled Sharks produced an epic performance and pushed the form team in SuperRugby to the limit, but poor goal-kicking and a moment of madness that saw captain Butch James yellow-carded were behind their defeat.
For intensity and drama, it was a top-class game of rugby, with both teams fighting relentlessly for every centimetre on the gain-line, but also using their backs to strike when a chance to spread the ball presented itself.
The Sharks, with a team ravaged by injury and a stand-in coaching team, will be heartened that they managed to give the Bulls, on a phenomenal eight-match winning streak, a real run for their money at their home fortress, where they have not lost a game since June last year.
But they will be gutted that a wayward kicking display by Pat Lambie cost them 10 points, while Riaan Viljoen also missed two penalties, including a last-minute effort that would have reversed the result.
James, a surprise choice as captain as the Sharks pulled a typical late shuffle with regular captain Keegan Daniel shifted to the bench to make way for another battering ram in Jean Deysel, was a commanding presence at flyhalf (his swop with Lambie being another late change) until the last 10 minutes when he lost the plot and then almost decapitated Bulls replacement back Jurgen Visser with a flying head-high tackle.
The Bulls not only had to overcome a feisty Sharks team but also a spate of penalties awarded against them by referee Jason Jaftha. The visitors had already been given a dozen penalties by the time the Bulls received their second, and the breakdowns were the most obvious area of difficulty for them when it came to deciphering the bizarre rulings of Jaftha.
The official line of Bulls captain Dewald Potgieter was that “the odds were a bit against us and there were a lot of technical decisions at the breakdown, we need to adapt to the way the referee is blowing” – but the obvious feeling in the Bulls camp was that Jaftha was only watching them at the rucks.
But the character and composure of the Bulls remained intact, although there were times in the third quarter when they looked rattled and were thrown off their game-plan. But it was the ideal sort of test for their young side ahead of the pressure of sudden-death play in the playoffs.
“The way we kept our cool and grinded it out and the way we pulled it back were very pleasing. These local derbies get the best out of the teams and we always invite competition, there were areas where they really tested us and it’s good that that happened and we were still able to get the result.
“In the second half, there were a few opportunities when the corners were open and field position was vital. We made mistakes then, but the players were probably feeling that they wanted momentum and ball-in-hand, trying to win the gain-line battles. You don’t want to win that way, but we’ll take it and hope to take great things from it,” coach Frans Ludeke said.
With the help of a seemingly anti-Bulls referee, the Sharks dominated the breakdowns for the first hour and were able to up the pace of the game and stretch the Bulls, before they resurrected their home playoff hopes in miraculous fashion at the death, moving them into first place on the log, two points ahead of the Chiefs and four ahead of the Brumbies going into the final round of regular-season play.
There were also celebrations in Bloemfontein as the Cheetahs confirmed they will advance to the playoffs for the first time as they beat the Blues 34-13.
The Cheetahs dominated at forward to set up their victory, but took a long time to seal the deal as they wasted several try-scoring chances in a nervy second half.
A fifth-minute try to Blues scrumhalf Jamison Gibson-Park served as a timely warning to the Cheetahs of the perils of giving the visitors turnover ball, but the home side’s scrum then went to work where it really mattered – inside the opposition 22 – to earn a penalty and then a tighthead that led to eighthman Phillip van der Walt’s try and a 13-7 lead at the end of the first quarter.
Impressive flyhalf Riaan Smit kicked two more penalties to give the Cheetahs a 19-10 half-time lead, but Willie le Roux wasted two great opportunities to get the second try early in the second half, before Baden Kerr kicked a 58th-minute penalty to give the Blues the first points after the break and close the gap to 13-19.
But the Cheetahs, dominating the rucks thanks to their brilliant loose trio of Brussow, Van der Walt and Labuschagne, were able to build multiple phases in the last 10 minutes and it was almost inevitable that nippy replacement scrumhalf Sarel Pretorius would find a gap and score.
He did so in the 75th minute and replacement flank Boom Prinsloo added a third try three minutes later to put the cherry on top.
It was a top-class forward effort by the Cheetahs, with lock Rynard “Ligtoring” Landman also a stand-out player along with a front row that is also a phenomenal unit.
The backline made a plethora of handling errors, but Le Roux was so often a lethal threat with ball in hand, while outside centre Johann Sadie also had a fine game.
The Southern Kings went into their derby against the Stormers with a simple and brutal mode of attack that sought to disrupt the opposition as much as possible at source.
With the Stormers not exactly being the most dazzling attacking side themselves these days, it led to an ugly war of attrition at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, which the visitors won 24-12.
Due to earlier happenings at the Free State Stadium, it meant little because the Cheetahs’ win had already knocked the Stormers – and the Sharks for that matter – out of contention for the playoffs.
While the Kings are rightfully lauded for their magnificent defence, they probably show the least attacking intent of all the SuperRugby sides and they seemed content to just spend the 80 minutes snapping at the ankles of the Stormers, in other words being a nuisance rather than going out and trying to win the game.
Stormers captain and flank Deon Fourie scored two tries to add to the joint goalkicking efforts of Elton Jantjies and Joe Pietersen in a game that was a poor spectacle.
Referee Lourens van der Merwe must foot much of the blame for that as cynical play in the breakdowns continuously went unpunished.
Just like last weekend in their rousing victory over the Cheetahs, it was the Stormers’ forwards who did the legwork for the win, none more so than Fourie.
People are constantly bringing up Heinrich Brussow’s name when it comes to traditional openside flanks, but for all-round impact, Fourie also punches way above his weight and his livewire performances have been integral to the Stormers’ recent improvement in form.
Lock Eben Etzebeth – apart from being involved in several off-the-ball incidents – and prop Steven Kitshoff were also prominent in giving the Stormers a physical edge in the forward battle.