POLOKWANE – It would be unfair and unjust to have expected the Bulls and the Sharks to present their Super Rugby title ambitions in their first hit-out of the pre-season on Saturday.
As scrappy and disjointed this friendly turned out to be at times, both sides did enough to give a glimpse into the running rugby they will look to produce during the demanding Super Rugby season.
It was the Sharks who emerged 31-14 winners over the Bulls on a cool summer evening in front of a sizeable crowd at the Peter Mokaba Stadium in Polokwane.
For sure there were going to be countless handling errors and some poor decision-making with ball-in-hand, as the teams tried to shake off the early-season cobwebs, while also doing their best to put on a spectacle for the few thousand that had gathered at the traditional football stadium.
And there was more than enough for the rugby-starved Limpopo spectators to enthuse over as familiar faces in Super Rugby – especially from the Sharks – and some new names from the Bulls impressed with some fine touches and defence-splitting runs.
Laden with Springboks, it was the Sharks who enjoyed the bulk of the possession and made most of the play, with scrumhalf Cameron Wright, former Bok loose forward Keegan Daniel, flyhalf Curwin Bosch and Lwazi Mvovo featuring prominently in that first stanza.
Wright was industrious and found himself in the right places at the right time, and was always on hand to provide a constant supply of possession to his backs.
Daniel rolled back the years as a livewire and was the perfect link-man between the forwards and backs, while Bosch was his usual self with his crisp passing to his backs and long, raking kicks.
As much as Mvovo has long fallen out of favour with the national selectors, the former wing looked dangerous running in from fullback, and often sliced the Bulls defence with ease, while also being selfless enough to create opportunities for the likes of Sbu Nkosi out wide.
The Sharks continued to impress in the second half with a completely different team, with new recruit Makazole Mapimpi crossing over the whitewash twice to announce his arrival for the Durban side after his try-scoring heroics for Southern Kings and more recently the Cheetahs.
Unfortunately for the Durban outfit, they were dealt a major injury blow, with scrumhalf Louis Schreuder limping off with a hamstring injury.
“It was good for us to get out there after a long pre-season. I’m happy with some of the things I saw out there, but it did get a bit scrappy at times,” said Sharks coach Robert du Preez.
“It is really sad about Louis, and it looks serious and that he will be out for a while.”
The Bulls were not without starlets of their own, with the Junior Springbok halfback pairing of scrumhalf Embrose Papier and flyhalf Manie Libbok really standing up and rewarding coach John Mitchell for the faith he placed in them.
Papier handled the pressure that came with his first start well, and was always on hand to provide a quick and crisp service, while showing the patience and maturity of a player beyond his 20 years.
Libbok also looked comfortable in directing play at No 10, and he scored a gem of a try by taking on the defence and stepping his way past three would-be defenders.
Wing Travis Ismaiel had some good runs out wide and looked for work, while Thembelani Bholi showed some glimpses of being a contender to make his way from outside of the squad.
“I think we played well in that first half, and there were a lot of positives to take from that. We were a bit disjointed in the second half with the changes we made, but that is how pre-season matches go, I guess,” said Mitchell afterwards.
“I was happy with Embrose and Manie. They showed a lot of maturity for the young players that they are.”
Bulls 14 – Tries: Manie Libbok, Jaco Visagie. Conversions: Manie Libbok (1), Marnitz Boshoff (1).
Sharks 31 – Tries: Cameron Wright, Makazole Mapimpi (2), Marius Louw, Jacques Vermeulen. Conversions: Curwin Bosch (1), Robert du Preez (2).