Bulls edge Sharks in epic S14 final

21 May 2007

The first all-South African final in the history of the Super 14 produced a dramatic twist at the end as the Bulls, who had led the contest for only three minutes throughout, edged the Sharks 20-19 on a successful conversion by Derick Hougaard after Bryan Habana had scored a try after the final hooter had sounded.

Agony and ecstacy summed up the final moments of the match for the Sharks and Bulls supporters, but somehow that description seems inadequate. One had to see it to truly appreciate the spectacle.

An uncompromising battle
Predictably, it was an uncompromising battle, but, if anything, it was the Sharks that shaded matters, excepting on the scoreboard. The home team’s forwards took it to the Bulls’ much-vaunted pack and enjoyed the advantage in the tight and loose phases, while the Bulls had the edge in the lineouts.

Behind the packs, the Sharks’ backline showed more enterprise, but the Bulls hung in until the end and ultimately stole a memorable victory at Durban’s Absa Stadium which was swathed in a sea of black and white.

“They outplayed us for 79 minutes,” admitted Bulls’ captain Victor Matfield following the game. That assessment was pretty much on the money as the Sharks showed greater focus despite the pressure of the occasion against their opponents who had much more finals’ experience.

Hero nearly the villain
In the second minute of the contest, the Bulls’ hero at the end, Bryan Habana, very nearly became the villain at the start, with a nasty illegal tackle on an airborne Percy Montgomery, which saw the Sharks’ fullback clattered painfully to the ground. Had the tackle not occurred so early in the game, he would likely have been sin-binned.

It was definitely a tackle that deserved 10 minutes on the sidelines and Habana admitted as much afterwards. “I was fortunate to stay on the field,” he said.

After eight minutes the home team made it onto the scoreboard first when Montgomery slotted an easy penalty after JP Nel had been penalised for a shoulder charge.

The Sharks were making the running, exhibiting more composure than the Bulls, but the visitors moved onto the attack when AJ Venter was penalised for using his hands at a ruck. Derick Hougaard could have had a shot at goal, but captain Victor Matfield instructed him to kick for touch. It was an unusual decision in a match where a bonus point for scoring tries wasn’t on offer, but it paid big dividends.

First try
Winning a lineout deep inside the Sharks’ 22 metre area, the Bulls quickly moved the ball left to Matfield. He drew the defence before laying off a pass for a charging Pierre Spies, who ran with pace into the gap between two defenders, brushing off their attempted stops to burst over for the first try of the final.

Hougaard added the conversion to put the Bulls 7-3 in front.

Minutes later, Spies went from hero to villain. He broke off the back of a scrum in the middle of the field before passing wide to his right under pressure from an attacking Sharks’ defence. Winger JP Pietersen read the play perfectly, catching the pass and stepping inside before galloping away to score from 50 metres out, to the joy of the home fans.

Montgomery’s conversion was off target, leaving the Sharks with a narrow 8-7 advantage.

Extended the lead
Just before the half-hour mark Montgomery extended the Sharks’ lead to four points by kicking another penalty after the Bulls were trapped offsides at a ruck.

It was tit-for-tat as Hougaard reduced the deficit to a single point within two minutes after Brad Barrit was pinged for being offsides.

Shortly after that Montgomery put a sitter over after JP Nel played the ball from an offside position. That put the Sharks 14-10 in front.

Three minutes before the break, the fullback had an opportunity to extend his side’s lead to seven points, but he was wide with his kick.

Drop goal attempt
Just after the restart, Bulls’ flyhalf Derick Hougaard, as good an exponent of the dropped goal as there is in the game today, took a shot at the posts, but he was wide of the target.

One minute later he was short with a penalty kick.

It took 20 minutes of the second half for points to be scored and they went the way of the Bulls. Hougaard made the score 14-13 when he knocked over a penalty after Sharks’ skipper John Smit had been caught was his hands in the ruck by referee Steve Walsh.

With only a point in it, the tension mounted as the clock ticked down. Three times drop goals were attempted, but three times they failed to produce points.

Sharks’ try
Then, with only two minutes left on the clock, the Sharks drove furiously towards the Bulls’ line, employing the rolling maul that they had used so effectively throughout the Super 14 as an attacking weapon. The Bulls stopped the surge just short of the line, but Albert van den Berg picked up and dived over the top to just get the ball down on the tryline.

The home crowd was ecstatic as it appeared the Super 14 trophy would be on its way to Durban.

The result could have been decided by the conversion from Francois Steyn – not a difficult one – but he was wide, leaving the Sharks 19-13 in front.

A converted try would win it for the Bulls.

There was only one way to find a try and that was by the Bulls giving the ball air and passing it around to try and prise the stubborn Sharks’ defence open.

Closing movement
The hooter sounded and both Butch James and Francois Steyn had opportunities to kick the ball out and win the game for the Sharks but, under pressure from the desperate Bulls, they failed to do so.

Back the Bulls came. At a ruck it seemed they had lost possession but, miraculously, the ball emerged on their side.

Out to the right the ball went to Habana. A wall of Sharks’ defenders rushed across to prevent the speedster from racing down the touchline. Habana, though, cut inside and suddenly it all opened up in front of him. A big gap provided more than enough opportunity for the flyer to race through. A huge dive took him across the tryline for a five-pointer that closed the gap to 19-18 to the Sharks.

Hougaard duly converted the try and the final whistle sounded giving the Bulls the honour of becoming the first South African winners of the Super 14.

It was a great reward for the Bulls’ coach Heyneke Meyer, who twice previously had been axed as coach of the side, but never gave up on his dream or that of his players of winning the southern hemisphere’s biggest tournament outside of test rugby.

Standout performers
For the Bulls, captain Victor Matfield stood out, reinforcing the claim that he is the best lineout forward in world rugby. Bakkies Botha added the grunt in the engine room, while, in the backline, Bryan Habana showed just how devastating he can be as a finisher.

For the Sharks, tighthead prop BJ Botha led the pack with distinction in the scrums, giving the home team the edge. Johann Muller, at lock, turned in a massive performance, while Jacques Botes was excellent in the loose, leaving many wondering how he had failed to make the Springboks’ 46-man squad.

Butch James probably shaded his battle with Derick Hougaard at flyhalf, while JP Pietersen, on the wing, was electrifying, both on attack and defence.

After the game, Sharks and Bulls fans braaied together on the packed fields surrounding the Absa Stadium, emphasising the cliche that had been heard so often before the game – one that was true, however – that South African rugby was the real winner.

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