The Cell C Sharks made the strong statement they were looking for when they started the Jake White era with an emphatic 31-16 win over the Vodacom Bulls in their Super Rugby opener at Growthpoint Kings Park in Durban on Saturday night.
Until the final minute of play it was a strong opening performance from the Sharks, but the large crowd that had pitched up to celebrate the fresh start and to see whether their team really justified the favourite tag they had been given was still a little subdued for much of a game that had frequent dull periods in spite of the relative high scoring for this time of the year.
But when Patrick Lambie breached a stretched Bulls defensive line to cross for the fourth try, thus clinching the bonus point, it was clear that the Kings Park faithful had been won over as they added the necessary octane to their celebrations.
It is a long time since the Sharks have started a new Vodacom Super Rugby season with such a comfortable victory, and doing it over the old arch enemy would have only made it sweeter for their fans.
However, the Bulls seemed in a charitable mood for much of the match, and what should make coach Jake White happy will be the way his team played and beat the Bulls at their own game.
The Bulls are known for their pinpoint kicking game, general efficiency and their propensity for turning opposition mistakes into profit for themselves, but in this match there was such a reversal roles in this eagerly awaited Super Rugby opener that it was possible to imagine the teams had swopped jerseys.
The Sharks took their chances, with accurate attacking and clinical finishing responsible for two of the three first-half tries.
But both of those tries in question were also down to Bulls mistakes that you wouldn’t have expected from them in years gone by, while the third, the gift presented to scrumhalf Cobus Reinach was down to failure to exit from their own 22.
That used to be a Bulls staple, as was an accurate kicking game – both at posts and in general play. In this match both were glaring for their absence, and both Fouche and scrumhalf Francois Hougaard endured a horrendous night when it came to getting boot to ball.
It started for Fouche when he kicked directly into touch in the second minute, while one of Lambie’s two first-half penalties – the Sharks led 23-9 at the break – came about when the Bulls went offside when a Hougaard kick went so awry that it came down almost where he was standing and the Bulls were adjudged to be offside.
It was the flyhalf who missed the tackle that allowed Sharks left wing Lwazi Mvovo to scythe through off a set move from a lineout near the halfway line and send one of several men outside him, centre Paul Jordaan, over for the first try of the match after 10 minutes.
The Bulls' tactics have not changed one iota from what they have been doing for the last decade. They rely heavily on kicking, only in this game it was poor, and they still place a massive emphasis on the maul, which was fairly impressive but they just made too many unforced errors for it to bring them anything to tally up the scoreboard.
There was one period of the first half where they camped in the Sharks 22 and had the benefit of a couple of penalties but were unable to score any points.
Their lineout didn’t function, precipitating the early arrival of Victor Matfield on the field five minutes into the second half, but although the former Springbok legend retains authority in his field of expertise, it wasn’t enough to turn the tide.
That tide had started to flow in inexorable fashion in the Sharks' favour by halftime. Their second try came when Hougaard was unable to clear the 22 from a lineout and then from the follow up lineout had a pass intercepted by his opposite number Cobus Reinach, who dotted down with hardly a hand laid on him.
Their third try came on the stroke of halftime and immediately after Fouche had brought his team back into the game with a penalty to cut the Sharks lead to 16-9.
It was the direct consequence of Bulls fullback Jurgen Visser making the mistake of stepping into touch deep in his own half.
From the play after the lineout Sharks skipper Bismarck du Plessis produced an offload that created the bit of space that big centre Frans Steyn needed to put his own stamp on the game as his accurate cross-kick put Odwa Ndungane in for the score.
The Bulls were left to lament what might have been by that Visser mistake, for had the Sharks been held to a seven point lead at the break, it might have been a much more tightly contested game.
At the same time though the Sharks could have won by more as Lambie missed three of his four conversion kicks, admittedly all of them from the angle.
Cell C Sharks - Tries: Paul Jordaan, Cobus Reinach, Odwa Ndugane, Pat Lambie. Conversion: Lambie. Penalties: Lambie (3).
Vodacom Bulls - Try: Jono Ross. Conversion: Handre Pollard. Penalties: Louis Fouche (2). Drop goal: Fouche.