The Sharks have overcome a spirited Bulls team – and a rather on-sided refereeing performance – to record an 18–16 win at Loftus, despite being reduced to 14 men for 20 minutes of the contest.
The visitors started brightly, with their scrum and lineout functioning well to help build a dominant platform, from which they launched wave after wave of attack. In fact, such was their dominance in the opening quarter that the Bulls seldom found themselves out of their own half at all in that period; worryingly for the Sharks, though, that on-field pressure wasn’t converted into points on the scoreboard, with Fred Zeilinga’s uncharacteristically wayward boot netting just two penalties from four attempts. Bulls pivot Handre Pollard made full use of his only opportunity to aim at posts during the quarter, though and despite being outplayed on the field, the Bulls found themselves just 3-6 down.
A few forced passes in the red zone, coupled with handling errors and a tendency to get isolated at the breakdown robbed the Sharks of numerous try-scoring opportunities throughout a first half that was memorable only for a strange decision from referee Marius van der Westhuizen to yellow card Jacques Botes for an innocuous breakdown offence deep within Bulls’ territory. The card was wrong for several reasons; it was Botes’ first such transgression and occurred far from the Sharks’ “red zone”. Furthermore, replays showed that Botes did everything within his power to roll away, with the arriving Sharks’ player, Jean Deysel, robbed of a legitimate steal in the process.
Van der Westhuizen’s scrum rulings were equally bizarre; seemingly blind to intentional wheels and persistent scrumming in from Bulls loosehead Marcel van der Merwe, he repeatedly pinged the Sharks for deliberate wheeling of scrums in which they were clearly the dominant pack. Zeilinga and Pollard traded penalties to leave the Sharks 9-6 ahead at the break, but the Bulls showed some poor decision making by eschewing a number of kickable opportunities deep within Sharks territory during the half. With their hooker, Bongi Mbonambi, unable to hit the proverbial barn door, there was no return for them from the line-outs they opted to set up instead.
The second half produced more of the same, as Keegan Daniel’s growing frustration with the referee sent matters into a downward spiral. Jean Deysel was duly carded in turn for a first (and marginal) offence and the Bulls scored the only try of the match during this period – Francois Venter taking advantage of the Sharks’ lack of defenders. With Pollard adding a penalty, the Sharks found themselves 16-12 down with 15 minutes to play, but fought back bravely to earn the two penalties that allowed them to retake the lead. Van der Westhuizen continued his baffling display by refusing to card any Bulls players for exactly the same transgressions that had seen the Sharks so punished – Paul Willemse, in particular, must have used up several of his nine lives on the night.
The Sharks, though, are a team that knows how to win these tight ugly games and while neither tries nor vintage rugby was evident in any way on the night, they left Loftus with log points, which ultimately count for a lot more.
Blue Bulls (16) – Try: Francois Venter. Conversion: Handre Pollard. Penalties: Pollard (3).
Sharks (18) – Penalties: Fred Zeilinga (4), Butch James (2).