Bulls are the S14 champions

19th May 2007, 18:27

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Blood sweat and joy: Wikus van Heerden

Blood sweat and joy: Wikus van Heerden

The Bulls became South Africa's first Super rugby champions in 14 years, the first in the professional era, when they recorded a thrilling 20-19 victory over the Sharks at a packed ABSA Stadium in Durban on Saturday.

The Bulls became South Africa's first Super rugby champions in 14 years, the first in the professional era, when they recorded a thrilling 20-19 victory over the Sharks at a packed ABSA Stadium in Durban on Saturday.

In what must rate as one of the best, if not THE best, finals in the last decade, the teams scored two tries each.

However, the winner came in the most thrilling fashion - Bryan Habana using his pace to scoot over after the full-time hooter had already sounded and Derick Hougaard kicking the winning conversion.

It's all over. The waiting is over, that huge build-up of exquisitely agonising expectation is over. There is a winner. Only in a final like this is the divide between victory and defeat such an emotional chasm - the victors scaling the heights, the losers plumbing the depths - and all for one point.

All those who said it was too close to call were right. On the end the difference was two missed conversions to two kicked conversions - that's all. The Sharks led for 82 minutes of the game and lost it in the 83rd. It does not come tenser than that.

The Bulls, to their eternal credit, were the most gracious of winners. John Smit was gracious in defeat, Victor Matfield in victory - and it is probably harder to be gracious in victory. Matfield said that he thought the Sharks had been the better team. Certainly they had created better scoring chances and when Albert van den Berg planted their second try, victory seemed assured.

As predicted, it was not a fluent game, but not without exciting movement, most of it by the Sharks, but the expansive movement at the end was the one that counted as the Bulls started right, went wide left and came back far right where Bryan Habana cut inside Bob Skinstad, swept past Tendai Mtawarira and dived into history to score the try that made victory possible - inevitable really for Derick Hougaard was not going to miss the conversion from there.

Just before 80 minutes were up, Gary Botha broke and then grubbered from well inside his own territory to inside the Sharks 22 where François Steyn got the ball. 80 minutes were up by then but Steyn did not kick the ball out. He kicked it down the field to Victor Matfield and the Bulls went on the run as they had not run all match. It was the sort of thing they had done to the rickety Reds, not to the stern Sharks. Matfield started ion the right and they went left. Back they came far right and then far left and then again far right. The Sharks tackled and tackled till there was no one really left to grab sniping, hunched, swerving, speeding Bryan Habana. It took two minutes to make that winning try.

After James had kicked the ball downfield, Van der Westhuyzen started to counter. There werre four passes till Gary Botah grubbered. Then Steyn kicked and Matfield started to counter. There were 17 passes, the 17th from Adams was to Habana and he scored the try. That winning try took 21 passes and more than two minutes to score.

It will become the stuff of rugby legends. Nobody who was there will forget it.

We all knew it was going to be a great occasion - and it was. Some horrible people tried their best to talk us out of enjoying a great week in South African rugby with bleatings and trumpetings about Player 46 but in the end the occasion rose high above that quagmire as Durban, and the rest of South Africa, gave itself over to enjoying it.

It was hot, humid and windy and the beach was invitingly nearby, but in the ABSA Stadium spectators and players sweated it out in activity and anxiety.

The skydivers stopped, the dancing girls went off, the music stopped, the flags waved, the painted people cheered, and Butch James kicked off, the Sharks with the wind, and the first half belonged to them. They dominated possession and territory and ended the half leading 14-10.

The Bulls started badly, giving away three penalties, the first a gross one when Habana, hero at the last, tackled Percy Montgomery in the air and brought him thumping to ground. The referee was composed and asked for composure, and for the rest of the match there was. The final penalty count was 10-7 in the Sharks' favour as the referee stayed cool in the heat.

The Sharks started the half running from left to right till a lazy Steyn hand knocked on. When the Bulls were penalised at a tackle, Ruan Pienaar, who played with excellent judgement and confidence, tapped and ran. At the next tackle JP Nel was penalised and Montgomery goaled. 3-0 after 9 minutes and loads of glee in the stadium.

The match was played at a furious place - a harsh contest in all its phases. The slightly lighter Sharks' pack were much better at the maul and eventually much better in the scrums but the Bulls ruled the line-outs. The great clashes came at the tackle. It was no place to stand and rest.

The Bulls had tried mauling but the Sharks would have none of it as they broke their mauls apart. So when they kicked a penalty out in the Sharks 22, they did not try to maul. Instead when Pierre Spies won the ball, the Bulls peeled going left. A tackle a quick pass and Matfield had the ball. The tall man gave the gentlest of passes to Spies who burst through, hunched, on an angle past Waylon Murray and round for a try under the posts. Hougaard converted. 7-3 after 13 minutes.

Five minutes after his heroic try, Spies gave the Sharks one. From a scrum, the Bulls went right on the blind side - Spies to Fourie du Preez and back to Spies. Spies sought to pass to Akona Ndungane but instead passed to JP Pietersen, who had surely his best game ever. The wing stretched his long legs down the left for 51 metres and a try. The conversion was missed - a significant miss. But the Sharks led 8-7 after 19 minutes.

Hougaard grubbered and Habana chased and forced Montgomery out for an attacking line-out for the Bulls. They won the ball and mauled and made no headway against the clever and committed Sharks.

There was then a scrum for accidental off-side and the Bulls were penalised, some five metres from the Sharks' line. Pienaar tapped and went and the next thing Murray was speeding down the left. He grubbered but the promising ball ricocheted off Johan Roets and into touch.

There was to be a penalty to the Sharks and so John Smit dropped at goal. It was one of five failed drop goal attempts in the match and the best one. The referee went back to the penalty and Montgomery goaled. 11-7 after 29 minutes.

Three minutes later Hougaard lined up a kick at goal. This was not Loftus Versfeld where he was a hero. There would be no Liefling after he kicked, just a grumpy snoring of boos before he kicked. He kicked it over. 11-10.

When Butch James kicked a great up-and-under and the Bulls made a mess Nel was off-aside at the knock-on and Montgomery had the simple task of making it 14-10. He had a chance to make it 17 just before half-time when the Sharks made great headway with a maul and Bakkies Botha was