The Cell C Sharks paid the price for a steady stream of turnovers at the ruck and poor goalkicking as they went down 10-17 to the Vodacom Bulls in their SuperRugby match at Kings Park in Durban on Saturday.
The Bulls were strong favourites against a Sharks team in turmoil and coming off two successive losses, but the home side pushed them all the way with a gutsy effort, but one which lacked the skill and polish needed to beat a well-drilled visiting team.
The prime reason for the Sharks’ defeat was their failure to look after the ball at the rucks, with the Bulls winning 13 turnovers, successfully preventing the home side from getting any attacking momentum.
The Bulls dominated territory from the start, looking the more likely team to score first as they took the ball through a number of phases inside the Sharks’ 22, but the brilliant defence of the Sharks denied them and showed that there is obviously no lack of effort on their part, despite their losing run.
The inconsistent boot of flyhalf Fred Zeilinga provided the first points of the match in the 17th minute, as he kicked a penalty, flank Deon Stegmann’s fractionally early tackle on the flyhalf after scrumhalf Cobus Reinach burst through a gap and offloaded to him having been spotted due to the intervention of the TMO, Marius Jonker.
Zeilinga missed a second shot at goal for the Sharks in the 25th minute before Handre Pollard, making his first appearance for the Bulls this month, levelled the scores with a 30th-minute penalty after another returning Springbok, Jannie du Plessis, had been penalised for illegal binding, a regular problem for the tighthead prop.
The Bulls looked on the verge of taking total control when they scored four minutes before halftime through wing Francois Hougaard.
Scrumhalf Rudi Paige, who is becoming a real general for the Bulls with the way he controls the game with excellent decision-making and efficient service, combined with Hougaard down the right wing, destroying the Sharks’ defence with a brilliant interchange of passes.
The Bulls led 8-3 at the break as Pollard’s conversion came off the post, but the Sharks grabbed the lead just two minutes into the second half with a fine try of their own.
Reinach is a different sort of scrumhalf to Paige, being a model of attacking opportunism, and it was his break that was rounded off in clinical fashion as replacement prop Lourens Adriaanse supported well and hard-working flank Marcell Coetzee stormed over for the try.
Zeilinga converted to give the Sharks a 10-8 lead, but that only lasted three minutes as a Pollard penalty put the home side 10-11 behind.
Both flyhalves then deposited penalties wide of the mark, but Pollard stretched the lead to 14-11 in the 67th-minute as the Bulls were once again able to get more numbers to the breakdown and Coetzee was beaten by the ruck as he tried to steal the ball.
Pollard finally burst the determined Sharks’ balloon with a 73rd-minute penalty, once again stemming from a ruck and an isolated player holding on to the ball.
The Sharks were pressing hard inside the Bulls’ 22 in the closing minutes in search of the equalising try, but the ball was once again turned over and the Bulls cleared the danger.
The victory leaves the Bulls at the top of the South African Conference and second on the overall log, and the simple effectiveness of their game plan, when executed with the passion and accuracy they showed against the Sharks, is marking them out as the favourites, along with the Stormers, to make the playoffs.
Sharks – Try: Marcell Coetzee. Conversion: Fred Zeilinga. Penalty: Zeilinga.
Bulls – Try: Francois Hougaard. Penalties: Handre Pollard (4).