Six-try Bulls sizzle as Sharks wilt in heat
The Loftus Versfeld heatwave hit the Hollywoodbets Sharks with a six-try sunburst as the Vodacom Bulls demolished them 44-10 in their Vodacom United Rugby Championship match on Saturday.
What was billed as one of the matches of the season, and touted by the Sharks' own social media channels as the “biggest rivalry in South African rugby” (the Stormers may have something to say about that), turned out to be a one-sided affair where the Bulls scored six tries to one and firmly entrenched themselves as the top SA side thus far in the competition.
It was also a reminder of how tough it is on a summer afternoon to win in the capital city where the heat and altitude combine to be incredible allies to the Bulls, but it was ultimately their pack and their ability to match power and pace that won them the game.
The Sharks, on the other hand, were always going to be up against it at Loftus, and while they had a lot of ball and suffered from the same malaise that plagued them on the tour, they showed signs of progress in their new approach, even though they were lacking in accuracy.
Their helter-skelter approach on attack may pay dividends against sides like the Dragons, but the Bulls' rush defence closed them down way too easily and eventually, it seemed as if Lukhanyo Am was trying to beat the entire Bulls defence on his own.
The scrum battle was won by the Bulls in the first half and even when they went down to 14 men they had the measure of the Sharks scrum and weren’t overawed.
On top of all this, Eben Etzebeth, normally the Sharks' most fearsome attacking weapon, was given little space and was closed down whenever he got the ball.
In short, the evidence between a side on song and brimming with confidence against a side still trying to find their feet in a new game plan was always going to produce this result.
And it could have been worse had the Bulls not fluffed a few chances, including a disallowed try that was called back after Embrose Papier was in front of the kicker in a chase that beat the Sharks defenders.
The Bulls' first try came from a perfect pass by Johan Goosen, as a textbook scrum attack was sent down the line for Goosen to skip Stedman Gans and find Canan Moodie. But Gans, sensing the opportunity, looped around to the outside and took the final pass to run in a beautiful first-phase try-scoring move.
Gans got the second as well, grabbing his try from a perfect pass from Goosen to run straight through and score. While there was some debate whether Jaden Hendrikse had slapped the ball from his hands and caused it to dislodge, both the referee and TMO ruled that there had been no separation and thus, the try stood.
Suddenly the Sharks were 17-3 down and started doubting themselves while the Bulls grew in confidence.
Things got worse for the visitors as the Bulls' talisman, winger Kurt-Lee Arendse took a blindside short attack, twisted his way inside out of a tackle and found a way to go over the line and score.
Akker van der Merwe gave the home side their bonus-point try a minute from the halftime whistle as he went over from the back of a rolling maul.
With the score 31-3 at halftime, it was always going to be uphill for the Sharks, but they were able to get the first points on the board as a series of penalties led to a rolling maul close to the line, and when it collapsed, it was an automatic penalty try and a yellow card for Gerhard Steenekamp.
The Sharks' hope though, was short-lived.
Just after the hour mark, a series of pick-and-goes, culminating in a perfect offload from Cameron Hanekom to man of the match Elrigh Louw killed off the hopes of the comeback.
Louw’s score was just reward for a player who was all over the park, and everywhere in between.
Van der Merwe scored his second a few minutes later to seal the win, taking an audacious chip from David Kriel to go over untouched.
And his smile was as big as the 24 000 fans that filled Loftus for a big, and highly satisfying victory.
For the Sharks though, it was only a reminder that there is a lot more hard work ahead of them before their new dawn realises results.
Vodacom Bulls - Tries: Stedman Gans (2), Akker van der Merwe (2), Kurt-Lee Arendse, Elrigh Louw. Conversions: Johan Goosen (4). Penalties: Goosen (2).
Hollywoodbets Sharks - Penalty try. Penalty: Curwin Bosch.