The Vodacom Bulls moved to the top of the Vodacom Super Rugby log with a heart-stopping, dramatic and brutal 20-19 victory over the Sharks at Loftus Versfeld on Saturday night.
On a night of drama, they weathered a fierce and passionate Sharks side determined for victory, and although they were on the wrong side of a penalty count and possession stats, they somehow managed to craft out a victory in the most dramatic fashion imaginable.
While it wasn’t as dramatic as their identical scoreline to win their first Vodacom Super 14 title in 2007, it came down to a moment of madness where the Bulls kept their heads while Butch James lost his.
At that moment the Bulls were looking lost at sea, clinging to the bit of hope that they were within a winning score but slowly losing it at the same time after squandering three penalties on the Sharks' line.
And then the moment happened. After all the work the Sharks did to get themselves into a winning position, it was all lost when James launched himself in the air at Jurgen Visser, catching him high with his arm as it slipped around his neck like a noose, jerking him back and looking spectacularly bad for the former Springbok.
As the stadium roared in anger and shock, the Bulls saw their chance. They scooped up the ball and JJ Engelbrecht broke through a tackle, spurted ahead and sent it inside for Jano Vermaak to scoot over to score.
In a flash the Sharks looked rattled. They were down to 14 men with a yellow card, and they had lost their lead.
But there was more drama. Riaan Viljoen had a chance to snatch victory back on the stroke of fulltime with a penalty, but as with so many other kicks on the night, it was nowhere near its mark.
A sober look at the Shark's dramatic loss will see that they missed 16 points – four penalties and two conversions – and lost by one point.
It will show that had they simply taken advantage of the leeway referee Jason Japhta offered them at the breakdown and built an innings, they would have been easy victors.
It was here where all the hard work of the likes of Marcell Coetzee, Jannie and Bismarck du Plessis, the physicality of Willem Alberts and Jean Deysel and the lineout heroics of Keegan Daniel were spilt to nothing.
The Sharks had worked so hard to get themselves into the position of victory, and then in a flash had it ripped away from them.
Yet that is the tale of these derbies so often. Normally overshadowed by the physicality of the contest – and this game had plenty of that – the Loftus spectacle was a spectacle because it also had the beauty of masterfully executed tries, of stern defence and of thoughtful attack.
In an overcrowded fixture list which fatigues us so easily nowadays, it is a wonder that in Round 19 of this year’s competition, two sides can still produce such a spectacle which, while it had errors, was still as absorbing as anything the competition could offer.
And at the end of it all, when the dust settled, the Bulls find themselves not only happy with the win, but now sitting pretty at the top of the log, dominant in the South African conference and unbeaten at their fortress Loftus this season – and, with one fixture left. with the very real possibility of hosting a home semi and final if they get that far.
On a night where everything was going against them, this Bulls side showed how much character and fight there was in them, even though they are losing several of their stars.
Morne Steyn opened the scoring with a penalty early on, but it was the Sharks who landed the first telling blow after Bismarck announced his return with a telling turnover in his own 22.
Taking the chance, Lambie stabbed through a chip which flatfooted Akona Ndungane, and Lwazi Mvovo put down the accelerator to scoop it up and run 60 metres before returning the favour to send Lambie over for the try.
The Bulls profited from Bismarck’s physicality as an errant elbow gave him 10 minutes in the sin bin, during which time they scored their first try.
Steyn’s second penalty put the Bulls in the lead, and even though Lambie briefly claimed it back with one of his own, a masterful cross kick from Springbok pivot Steyn found Bjorn Basson at the end of it for a superbly worked try to get his side 13-8 ahead.
Two missed penalties by Lambie saw the Sharks going into the break behind when they should have been in the lead but Lambie kicked two early penalties in the second half to retake the lead.
And then, through a bizarre call by Japhta where he called advantage over, then changed his mind and awarded the Sharks the penalty, the Sharks struck a telling blow, with James chipping over the defence to put Odwa Ndungane away for an excellent try.
At 19-13 up the Sharks looked in control, and with a healthy penalty count in their favour, were cruising.
But the Bulls finally won a penalty, and the momentum changed. Three penalties later they had failed to score, as Butch lost the plot and Visser almost lost his head.
The Sharks did come back at the end and worked a penalty through their powerful maul. But as with so many other kicks on the night, Riaan Viljoen’s was wide, and the Bulls heaved a sigh of relief.
The Bulls will take this win, but know a few things – they were lucky, and they escaped in the end. They will know they have character and fight in them.
And most of all, they will know they are at the top of the Super Rugby heap.
Vodacom Bulls – Tries: Bjorn Basson, Jano Vermaak. Conversions: Morne Steyn (2). Penalties: Steyn (2).
Sharks – Tries: Pat Lambie, Odwa Ndugane. Penalties: Lambie (3).