A stubborn refusal to ever concede defeat has been in the genes of several Bulls sides, but the current group showed extraordinary determination and perseverance as an 84th-minute drop goal by flyhalf Chris Smith snatched them a 30-27 victory over the Sharks in a thrilling United Rugby Championship quarterfinal at Loftus Versfeld on Saturday.
The Sharks had fully matched the Bulls in an enthralling and feisty first half which ended with the scores locked at 13-13. But the visitors seemed to have let the genie out the bottle when they conceded two tries in the opening 10 minutes of the second half.
Bulls captain Marcell Coetzee rounded off a period of concerted pressure for the first try, and then great work by outstanding fullback Canan Moodie and scrumhalf Zak Burger down the blindside earned the home side a lineout inside the Sharks’ 22. After a maul and some big carries, the Bulls went wide and centre Cornal Hendricks cut back inside to score.
But far from being brought to their knees by scoreboard pressure and altitude, the Sharks fought back superbly and finished strongly, a wonderful try by replacement loose forward Sikhumbuzo Notshe, and Curwin Bosch’s brilliant angled conversion, levelling the scores at 27-27 with five minutes remaining.
But Coetzee then won a vital turnover penalty deep inside the Bulls half. The lineout was set after Smith’s lengthy touchfinder, and the Bulls marched inexorably forward until they were under the Sharks’ poles. Tired bodies were smashing against each other at close range, neither side willing to give up, but then the ball was sent back to Smith, who slotted the winning drop goal to go with three conversions and two penalties in a perfect kicking display.
Sharks make game loose
Before that, the Sharks had looked the more likely winners in the final quarter, their outside backs flourishing as they made the game more loose. Notshe’s try was a sublime effort as Lukhanyo Am, Ben Tapuai, Phepsi Buthelezi and Henco Venter had somehow kept the ball alive down the left touchline without much seeming to be on, and the Springbok then snaking over as the Bulls defence was caught offguard.
Earlier, the ever-threatening Makazole Mapimpi had taken the Sharks to the Bulls line with his magic basically disappearing three defenders, and scrumhalf Jaden Hendrikse then dummied and dived over from the ruck to begin the remarkable Sharks comeback. A storming run by brilliant eighthman Buthelezi had put them on the front foot.
The Bulls started the first half slowly as they made soft mistakes, but the second quarter would see them start to get into their game.
They scored the first try, very much against the run of play, through Madosh Tambwe, rounding off a spectacular intercept by Moodie, but the Sharks soon replied with a rolling maul try by hooker Bongi Mbonambi.
Bulls – Tries: Madosh Tambwe, Marcell Coetzee, Cornal Hendricks. Conversions: Chris Smith (3). Penalties: Smith (2). Drop goal: Smith.
Sharks – Tries: Bongi Mbonambi, Jaden Hendrikse, Sikhumbuzo Notshe. Conversions: Curwin Bosch (3). Penalties: Bosch (2).