The Bulls earned terrific reward for attacking the Sharks at the breakdown at Loftus Versfeld, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Referee Mike Fraser allowed for a greater contest at the ruck, and this certainly suited the Bulls. Their forwards, and openside flank Deon Stegmann in particular, succeeded in slowing the Sharks down at ruck time. This allowed the Bulls’ defence more time to reset, and in some instances Stegmann and company won crucial defensive turnovers to kill the Sharks’ momentum.
The Sharks possess a fine loose forward combination in Marcell Coetzee, Willem Alberts and Ryan Kankowski. All three boast international experience, but they were outplayed by their less-fancied Bulls counterparts on Saturday.
It’s not that they played badly. Indeed, all three have been key in the Sharks’ good start to the 2014 season, but as a unit the Sharks forwards have not been consistent at the breakdown.
They were rattled by the Bulls in round one and pushed to the limit again in the return fixture at Loftus. The Bulls had the better of the collisions and their superior physicality allowed them to win the battle on the ground.
The heavy conditions underfoot made for a slower contest, which also suited the Bulls. The Sharks had come to Loftus with the aim of upping the tempo and keeping the ball away from that big Bulls pack. It’s a tactic that backfired, as they were guilty of numerous handling errors.
Losing scrumhalf Cobus Reinach early in the game also didn’t help their cause. Charl McLeod replaced Reinach and was not as efficient at clearing from the base, nor as big a running threat round the fringes. Having said that, he was under immense pressure, given his forwards were losing the collisions.
The Bulls weren’t always disciplined in their approach and Frans Steyn kept the Sharks in touch with some superb goal-kicking. Steyn even had a chance to clinch the game in the 74th minute with a drop goal, but the attempt drifted wide. The Bulls were fortunate, but it could also be said that the Sharks had given up on trying to build an attack and breach that big blue wall.
The Sharks enjoyed one final assault on the Bulls' line, but lost possession via a turnover. Thus was the story of their night at Loftus.
The Sharks are still South Africa’s best bet for a Super Rugby title in 2014. However, the loss at Loftus highlighted their vulnerabilities and they would do well to rectify these problems sooner rather than later.
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