Sharks 13 (0) Bulls 18 (0)
A typically accurate kicking game from the Bulls, led by kingpin Morné Steyn, carried the Pretoria team to an edge-of-your-seat 18-13 victory over the Sharks in a ferocious opening round Super Rugby encounter at Loftus Versfeld on Friday night.
Last year the Sharks completed the pool stages with an inspired victory in Pretoria that saw them qualify for the play-offs, but on Friday night it was the Bulls who got their 2012 campaign off to the ideal start.
Matches between the Bulls and Sharks very rarely fail to live up to expectation, and what Friday night’s encounter lacked in terms of quality, it made up for in terms of fierce physicality and nerve-wracking action.
However, it was a 15-minute spell just after half-time when Steyn coolly converted five penalties that laid the foundation for the Bulls’ victory.
The match may have resembled a dormant volcano in a scoreless opening half, but it erupted into life in the second period, as first the Bulls and then the Sharks counter-punched hard.
Any fans who might have only been able to catch the second half of the match, would undoubtedly have done a double take after seeing they’d actually missed very little, with both teams failing to notch up a point in the first period.
The tally of 12 handling errors (nine by the Bulls, three by the Sharks) told the story of a scrappy first 40 minutes, which included five missed shots at goal, with neither side able to get out of first gear.
Although the Sharks enjoyed more possession (60 percent in the first half), the visitors lacked the patience to fluently finish off the few opportunities they did create.
Undoubtedly, the coaches in both camps would have had some choice words to share with their players at half-time, and it was the Bulls who upped the intensity and enjoyed most of the ball after the break, with Steyn slotting five penalties to one from Pat Lambie.
In a matter of minutes, the complexion of the match had changed as the Bulls suddenly gained their confidence, and a 15-3 lead. Lambie would get three points back for the Sharks soon after, but in the 69th minute Steyn restored his team’s 12-point cushion with an expertly taken drop-goal.
However, just when it looked like the Bulls had pretty much wrapped up the result, the Sharks conjured up a breakaway try, with replacement Jacques Botes finishing off a movement that had started well within their own half.
Suddenly the Sharks had a sniff. With renewed vigour they launched wave after wave of attack, but the Bulls’ defence stood strong.
Although it was the Sharks who had the first opportunity to get some points on the board, Lambie’s penalty attempt sailed wide from a tricky angle.
Steyn missed an early penalty in a mirror image of Lambie’s failed attempt.
The kicking blues continued as first Riaan Viljoen – albeit from all of 60 metres – missed a shot at goal, followed closely by another uncharacteristic miss from Steyn and then from Lambie.
Such errors aptly summed up the opening half, with both teams displaying plenty of desire, but elementary errors and what can only be put down to some early season rustiness.
Yet that all changed in a scintillating second half.
Point scorers: Sharks
Try: Jacques Botes
Conversion: Pat Lambie
Penalties: Pat Lambie (2)
Bulls: Penalties: Morné Steyn (5)
Drop goal: Morné Steyn