Springbok flyhalf Morne Steyn underlined his ability to close out tight games as he kicked all his team’s points as the Vodacom Bulls won a tense game 18-16 against the Sharks in Durban on Saturday night.
Steyn kicked six penalties – the last one six minutes from the end of the game – to ensure his team continued their upward trend and settled in second spot on the overall Vodacom Super Rugby log.
In a game which was as intense as any test match, the Bulls eventually kept their cool and made less mistakes to win this arm-wrestle, despite being outgunned at the scrum and having only around 38 per cent of possession in the second half.
In essence the game was an indictment of two of the most powerful franchises who will contribute a large majority of the Springbok squad, with handling errors dominating the game and ensuring that it was never going to be a spectacle.
More than that though, the evening dew didn’t help either and the pressure of the match shone through as both teams looked very rattled at times and struggled to get their game plans going.
But then again we’ve seen this before from Bulls-Sharks games, hyped on testosterone and displaying very little flair. The Sharks looked to have turned up overflowing with passion, knowing this was simply their last chance saloon while the Bulls couldn’t afford to lose with the Cheetahs breathing down their necks.
The freedom to play was second to the desire to win and, in this case it, and the dew, influenced the game to a large extent.
The Bulls may not be a pretty team to play when they approach a match like this. With their kicking game dominating their outlook, they simply played the percentages, and ended up on the winning side without too much risk on the night.
The Sharks, however, threw everything they had at the Bulls, but will now know their season is over, and they simply can hope for a decent finish to give their suffering fans something to shout about.
The passion displayed by players – including in one massive hit by impressive Pieter-Steph du Toit on Wynand Olivier, shone through. Riaan Viljoen also looked good at the back, while the front row and Charl McLeod did their team proud.
The game was tailor-made for Steyn, who probably shaded the flyhalf battle with Patrick Lambie mostly because his team managed to exploit their opportunities better.
With Bok coach Heyneke Meyer in attendance, the discarded Bok was a dead shot, missing just one penalty as he put them over when it mattered. Lambie at times looked to try and do too much, but was just as accurate, missing just one of his kicks at goal.
But it was in the scrums where the Sharks got the first upper hand, as the Bulls endured a torrid opening few minutes, with referee Jonathan Kaplan showing them no mercy for their indiscretions.
Lambie made the first dent on the scoreboard, but the Bulls' pressure play and their ability to play in the right areas kept them in the game. Despite struggling in the scrums, their lineout and maul were working well and while it seemed they had done little to establish any sort of dominance, they did get three penalties to put them 9-3 up at the break.
The second half did little to temper the kicking game between the two, and soon Lambie had brought his team back into the match with two more penalties to Steyn’s one.
But the Bulls kept chipping away – forwards Juandre Kruger, Flip van der Merwe, Chiliboy Ralepelle and Dewald Potgieter leading from the front – and it wasn’t long before Steyn added another to give the Bulls a 15-9 lead.
Then, for those who were dying to see any team finally cross the whitewash, McLeod broke off the back of the scrum and was initially held by Arno Botha, before twisting to place the ball on the line for the only try of the night.
Lambie slotted a sideline conversion to put the Sharks 16-15 ahead, some reward for the glut of possession and territory they were dominating at the time.
Yet just as they got their noses in front the Bulls kicked long and won the lineout off the Sharks clearance, with Kaplan ruling Tendai Mtawarira had played the jumper in the air. With such a gift within range, Steyn stepped up and made no mistake, giving the Bulls the lead back with only a few minutes to play.
The Sharks' tactics in the final minutes were strange to say the least. They got into the Bulls 22 yet shunned a drop goal, making a handling mistake to give the ball back, and then when the Bulls pumped the ball downfield they opted to kick it back twice in the dying seconds.
It worked in the Bulls' favour, as they accepted a lineout on fulltime and simply booted the ball into touch.
The game may not be remembered for its purity, but the Bulls will be more than happy with the four points away from home. The Sharks, well, despite the passion it’s been a horrible season, and they will continue to search for answers as to why it is so.
Sharks - Try: Charl McLeod. Conversion: Pat Lambie. Penalties: Lambie (3).
Vodacom Bulls - Penalties: Morne Steyn (6).