The Vodacom Bulls' superior tactical-kicking performance earned them a massive 17-10 win over the Sharks at Kings Park on Saturday. JON CARDINELLI reports.
The Sharks played with passion and intensity. The Bulls played with physical intent, but also with intelligence. It was the latter quality that proved critical to the outcome.
The Bulls' halfbacks won the game for the Pretoria side. The scrums and breakdowns were fiercely contested by both teams. It was the decision-making and execution by Rudy Paige and Handré Pollard in the latter phases that set the Bulls apart.
Paige and Pollard tested the back-three of the Sharks with a series of garryowens and box kicks. These kicks were well chased by the Bulls backs. Ultimately, the Bulls succeeded in putting the Sharks' back-three under pressure, and in many instances, winning back possession.
The Sharks defended well, and both Marcell Coetzee and Willem Alberts looked to be in impressive form. Unfortunately for the hosts, the Sharks as a collective struggled to make their turnovers count.
The tactical kicking by the Sharks halfbacks was wayward, and thus the Bulls' back-three were not placed under pressure. The Sharks also conspired to botch a series of attacking opportunities. Their handling as well as their option-taking let them down, but then credit should go to a well-structured Bulls defence.
The Sharks will also lament another inconsistent goal-kicking performance. Fred Zeilinga missed three goals kicks against the Lions last week, and two against the Bulls on this occasion. Replacement flyhalf Lionel Cronjé also missed the target when he was introduced later in the game.
Pollard missed a drop-goal attempt, as well as two shots on goal. And yet, he should be commended for his recovery late in the game when he kicked a penalty goal to steer the Bulls to an important seven-point lead. It was a fine all-round display by the form South African flyhalf in this year's Super Rugby tournament.
Paige made some important contributions with the boot, and had a hand in the Bulls' only try. In the first half, the scrumhalf identified the space down the short side. Some smart interplay between Paige and Francois Hougaard resulted in a valuable five-pointer at crucial moment in the game.
Hougaard had a strong game on the right wing, and would make a timely turnover in his own 22 in the 80th minute. The Bulls subsequently managed to clear their lines and secure an important win.
The Sharks have now lost three games in succession. They will have much to contemplate during their bye next week. It won't get any easier for them when they travel Down Under in the following round.
The Bulls are now in a strong position at the top of the South African conference. A win against the Stormers at Newlands next week will take them one step closer to that conference title.
Sharks – Try: Marcell Coetzee. Conversion: Fred Zeilinga. Penalty: Zeilinga.
Bulls – Try: Francois Hougaard. Penalties: Handré Pollard (4).
Sharks – 15 Odwa Ndungane, 14 S'bura Sithole, 13 Waylon Murray, 12 André Esterhuizen, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Fred Zeilinga, 9 Cobus Reinach, 8 Renaldo Bothma, 7 Willem Alberts, 6 Marcell Coetzee, 5 Marco Wentzel (c), 4 Mouritz Botha, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Franco Marais, 1 Beast Mtawarira.
Subs: 16 Monde Hadebe, 17 Thomas du Toit, 18 Lourens Adriaanse, 19 Giant Mtyanda, 20 Etienne Oosthuizen, 21 Conrad Hoffmann, 22 Lionel Cronjé, 23 SP Marais.
Bulls – 15 Jesse Kriel, 14 Francois Hougaard, 13 JJ Engelbrecht, 12 Burger Odendaal, 11 Bjorn Basson, 10 Handré Pollard, 9 Rudy Paige, 8 Pierre Spies (c), 7 Jacques du Plessis, 6 Deon Stegmann, 5 Grant Hattingh, 4 Flip van der Merwe, 3 Marcel van der Merwe, 2 Adriaan Strauss, 1 Dean Greyling.
Subs: 16 Callie Visagie, 17 Morné Mellett, 18 Trevor Nyakane, 19 Arno Botha, 20 Lappies Labuschagne, 21 Piet van Zyl, 22 Tian Schoeman, 23 Jürgen Visser.
Photo: Steve Haag/Gallo Images