The Bulls’ polished 44-10 dismantling of the Sharks provided two inescapable conclusions — Jake White’s men are going to take some stopping in this competition, notably in Pretoria, and the Durban-based side’s journey under John Plumtree has miles to go.
The New Zealander said midweek that whatever transpired at Loftus Versfeld would not define his team as they work towards the style of play he envisages for them, an all-out attacking game not dissimilar to the All Blacks.
But the big Kiwi also said that the game would be won by the forward pack that generated momentum for their backline, especially because both sides were fielding highly dangerous backs.
The Bulls won this department hands down. The Sharks’ set-piece creaked all afternoon and a stand-out difference between the sides was the big ball carriers in blue who repeatedly made inroads to set up attacks for the backs.
The United Rugby Championship game was won and lost in a 30-minute purple patch in the first half in which the Bulls played with a blistering intensity that harvested four tries and 27 points. In that period, the Sharks could not live with their opposition and were outclassed.
The Sharks had enjoyed an excellent start, with Jaden Hendrikse engineering a breakout from his 22 by chipping over the top and gathering. The move stopped a few metres from the line but a penalty was secured for Curwin Bosch to kick the first points of the game.
But this was undone when the Sharks again got close to the Bulls’ line only for hooker Fez Mbatha to overcook his lineout throw. The Bulls gratefully caught the throw and counter-attacked and appeared to score at the other end but it was cancelled because the scrumhalf was in front of the kicker.
That resulted in a penalty for Bosch to almost nail from 55m. The ball grazed the outside of an upright and from the restart, Bosch fielded a long ball but was caught in possession and Johan Goosen nailed the penalty.
Not long after, Goosen passed wide to Canan Moodie who made the running before unleashing outside centre Stedman Gans for an excellent try off a set scrum.
On 20 minutes, there was an unfortunate moment when Mbatha was yellow-carded for being too upright in a tackle on Kurt-Lee Arendse. It was a harsh decision given how upright Arendse had been.
There was an immediate consequence. The Bulls kicked to the corner, drove the maul and then went wide for Gans to score his second.
The Sharks were in serious trouble when Arendse wriggled over at the corner after excellent work on the blind side by rising star Cameron Hanekom, the 21-year-old No 8.
Ominously, the Bulls had established a stranglehold on the set pieces and seconds before halftime, Akker van der Merwe wrestled over off the back of maul for a 27-3 half-time lead.
The Sharks burst out of the blocks for the second half and a bright passage of play culminated in a penalty try when Bulls prop Gerhard Steenekamp pulled down a maul.
The Sharks continued to make a strong fist of it in the third quarter. Still, they did not score again and it was the Bulls that spectacularly scored the next points, a try finished off by Eligh Louw after prominent carries by Marco van Staden and Hanekom and some deft touches by the backs.
Van der Merwe, the former Shark, would have loved his second try — Richard Kriel had chipped over the defence and The Angry Warthog leapt into the air like a salmon going upstream, caught the ball and dived under the crossbar.
Bulls 44 — Tries: Stedman Gans (2), Kurt-Lee Arendse, Akker van der Merwe (2), Elrigh Louw. Penalties: Johan Goosen (2). Conversions: Goosen (4).
Sharks 10 — Try: Penalty Try Penalties: Curwin Bosch