The Bulls finally got their first win of the Super Rugby season on Saturday, beating the Sharks 43-35 in a thrilling clash at Loftus Versfeld.
A last-minute try handed the Bulls a bonus point, before the conversion after the final hooter sent the Sharks back to Durban empty handed.
Prior to Jan Serfontein's try it was still anyone’s game as the Bulls clung to a one-point advantage they were afforded after replacement pivot Tian Schoeman slotted a penalty just minutes after his team were overtaken on the scoreboard by a resurgent Sharks outfit.
What will further disappoint the Durban’s director of rugby, Gary Gold, is that a try by full-back SP Marais was disallowed after the television match official ruled that the initial take in the air by Odwa Ndungane was forward.
When looking at the number of penalties they conceded, the Sharks may also feel that the referee could have been too harsh in his adjudication at the breakdowns and scrums.
To their credit, the Bulls were exceptional in their first-phase play and their objective to increase their efficiency at clearing rucks ensured that they always had good go-forward ball.
Flanker Lappies Labuschagné was prolific with ball-in-hand while the improvement the Bulls have made in their defensive structures should also serve them well as the tournament gains momentum.
Springboks fly-halves Handré Pollard and Pat Lambie exchanged penalties in an early kicking battle to leave the Bulls 9-6 up at the end of the first quarter.
The Bulls were first to get over the whitewash when Francois Hougaard finished out wide after a break from Jesse Kriel.
Controversially, the TMO rubber-stamped the score despite what appeared to a clear forward pass from the Bulls full-back.
Pollard added the conversion to stretch the hosts' lead at 16-6 but the Sharks' reply came on the half-hour mark.
Excellent work in the air from Renaldo Bothma allowed SP Marais to burst clear from the flank's offload; Odwa Ndungane provided the link to Ryan Kankowski, who raced home to score untouched.
Lambie's conversion and a penalty a few minutes later levelled the scores at 16-all, but the Bulls would strike again before the break as Deon Stegmann finished under the sticks to cap a classic Bulls battering ram build up.
While Springbok veteran Victor Matfield is known for his ability to disrupt any line-out, the big man was rather mischievous on the day as he continuously whispered into young Pieter Steph-Du Toit’s ear and interrupted the opposition during their strategy breaks.
The tactic worked to a certain effect as the Bulls were able to steal possession at line-out time from where Pollard’s superb tactical kicking ensured that the visitors weren’t able to build pressure.
Leading 23-16 at the break the home side continued to play a close game – keeping the ball with their forward.
Lambie, however, started the half by pulling three back after Stegmann was adjudged to have fallen over at a ruck.
Then came the moment that could very well have signalled the change in fortune the Pretoria side were so desperately looking for.
Bulls captain Pierre Spies finally announced his return to the Super Rugby arena when he latched onto a perfectly timed pass by scrum-half Rudy Paige to score his team’s third try.
Spies looked his old unstoppable self when he ran into the gap, and with the try his men were well and truly in control of proceedings.
In an otherwise stellar afternoon by Paige, the half-back was a tad slow with one of his attempted box kicks and that mistake blew new life into what looked like a done deal for the Bulls.
Springbok Cobus Reinach charged down the clearance attempt and raced through to bring his team within touching distance of their rivals.
The try also ensured that the final quarter of the match was played on a knife’s edge and it could very well have been the influence of the evergreen Matfield that brought calm to a Bulls team that snatched defeat from the hands of victory in their previous match.
Tries: Hougaard, Stegmann, Spies, Serfontein
Cons: Pollard 3
Pens: Pollard 4, Schoeman
Tries: Kankowski, Reinach
Cons: Lambie 2
Pens: Lambie 7
Bulls: 15 Jesse Kriel, 14 Bjorn Basson, 13 JJ Engelbrecht, 12 Jan Serfontein, 11 Francois Hougaard, 10 Handré Pollard, 9 Rudy Paige, 8 Pierre Spies (c), 7 Pieter Labuschagne, 6 Deon Stegmann, 5 Victor Matfield, 4 Jacques du Plessis, 3 Trevor Nyakane, 2 Adriaan Strauss, 1 Morné Mellett.
Replacements: 16 Callie Visagie, 17 Dean Greyling, 18 Marcel van der Merwe, 19 Grant Hattingh, 20 Hanro Liebenberg, 21 Tian Schoeman, 22 Travis Ismaiel, 23 Jurgen Visser.
Sharks: 15 SP Marais, 14 Odwa Ndungane, 13 Waylon Murray, 12 Andre Esterhuizen, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Patrick Lambie, 9 Cobus Reinach, 8 Ryan Kankowski, 7 Renaldo Bothma, 6 Marcell Coetzee, 5 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 4 Lubabalo Mtyanda, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Bismarck du Plessis (c), 1 Dale Chadwick
Replacements: 16 Kyle Cooper, 17 Thomas du Toit, 18 Lourens Adriaanse, 19 Marco Wentzel, 20 Jean Deysel, 21 Conrad Hoffmann, 22 Fred Zeilinga/Lionel Cronje, 23 Jack Wilson
Venue: Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria
Referee: Jaco van Heerden (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Rohan Hoffmann (Australia), Ben Crouse (South Africa)
TMO: Johan Greeff (South Africa)
By Michael Mentz