The Bulls delivered a masterclass in Pretoria on Saturday, beating the Sharks 44-10 in the 2021 Currie Cup final at Loftus Versfeld, setting a record in points’ difference in the competition that is more than a century old, the benchmark of provincial bragging rights in South Africa.
The defending champions scored six tries on their way to a back-to-back win of the oldest provincial competition in world rugby, and even the most hardened Sharks fan will have to admit that they witnessed a masterclass by the Pretoria outfit.
The 19-3 lead at the break, with three sublime tries in the bag, raised the red flags, but an even better second half followed by the hosts.
Six tries to one is one thing, but the way the champions first rode the initial onslaught from their coastal opponents before exploding with a barrage of well-taken tries, justified their tag as the country’s premier side.
They simple absorbed the pressure applied by their opponents early on, showing their defensive superiority over the Cell C Sharks attack, whilst their own attack totally outclassed the visitors’ defensive effort.
The match did not start well for the KwaZulu-Natalians, who lost influential midfielder Marius Louw in the warm-up due to ill-health and his replacement, Jeremy Ward’s first involvement was not a great one.
The Bulls attacked from a lineout three minutes in, Ward misread the dummy runners and his direct opponent, Harold Vorster, was left with a gap as big as a house in front of him. The hosts’ centre set off on a determined run that was not stopped until he was over the tryline.
Flyhalf Chris Smith pulled the conversion to the left, but after five minutes the home side had a 5-0 lead, momentum and growing confidence.
The visitors came to play though and after weathering the fast start by the Vodacom Bulls, came back into the game by carrying the ball well and committing the hosts to make tackles. The blue line held steady though and there were no gaps that opened up. The Cell C Sharks were undeterred though and kept plugging away, using good variety on attack.
All the early dominance in possession and territory did not yield any results though as the attacks were just not clinical enough to deliver points. Too often the next pass did not put the receiver in a better position or checked the supporting runner. A number of penalties conceded also allowed the Bulls to relieve territorial pressure.
Instead, it was sleight of hand by Vorster that created the next points again. The script was pretty much the same – a lineout created by a Sharks penalty, the ball moved to the backs and this time the timing of Vorster’s pass finding Lionel Mapoe cutting through the Ward/Werner Kok midfield like a hot knife through butter.
The veteran did not stop running and finished off with a trademark hand on the head try that stunned the Durbanites. Smith’s conversion was a formality, but the real damage done was not the 12-0 lead, but rather the ease the try was scored with, especially after the visitors toiled away with no result for 10 minutes.
The Sharks clearly came with a plan to Pretoria and credit to them, stuck to that and after 30 minutes, it finally yielded results when Curwin Bosch kicked a penalty goal after the Bulls wandered offside on defence.
The deficit of nine points did not last long – only three minutes in fact. From the restart, the Bulls attacked with purpose and flair and the Sharks were pinged for going offside near their own line. A tap and charge saw Marcell Coetzee crash over next to the uprights and Smith’s second conversion changed the lead to 19-3, despite the Bulls enjoying just under 40% possession.
The men from Pretoria also made a judgement call to compete in lineouts near their own line – instead of defending a possible maul – and twice in quick succession, a Sharks lineout in a promising field position was disrupted and the opportunity lost.
To add injury to insult, the hosts stole the Sharks’ lineout ball in the final phase of the first half and Coetzee kicked it into touch to end the half on the Bulls’ terms.
The second half started well for the Bulls. The Sharks were penalised for not rolling away at the restart and Smith stepped up to kick his first penalty goal of the match and a 22-3 lead to his side.
The Cell C Sharks lineout was not operating at any level of efficiency and that stumped any early comeback efforts in the second half.
Instead, the Bulls enjoyed territorial pressure, forcing the Sharks into desperate measures like running from the back. This allowed the Bulls defenders to make big defensive hits adding to the pressure the visitors found themselves under.
From such an attack and resulting turn-over, lock Janko Swanepoel crashed through from close range to all but secure the result. The former Stellenberg High School pupil became the first from his school to start in a Carling Currie Cup final and to hold aloft the famous gold cup, not only once, but twice.
With 50 minutes played, the home side held a 29-3 lead, and it was clear that something special will be needed from the coastal side to turn the tide. Sadly, for the men in black and white, it was another blue wave that smashed their hopes to pieces, with just under an hour of play gone.
Scrumhalf Zak Burger sniped around a ruck after yet another good lead-up by his pack, scoring try number five for the Bulls and confirming the total dominance of his side over their opponents.
Coetzee thought he added another five minutes later, this time following relentless pressure by the Bulls pack, who drove low and strong repeatedly, until no willing Sharks defenders were left to stop the surge, but the match officials confirmed spotted a knock-on in the lead up.
The officials had more work to do. They cancelled a try scored by Thaakir Abrahams as he stepped in touch in the process of going over, but the desperate Sharks were back at it from the resulting lineout when Springbok prop Thomas du Toit scored his side’s first try of the match. The Bulls fluffed their lineout and from the resulting overthrow near their own line Du Toit pounced to score. Bosch converted to bring their score tally to double figures.
Smith immediately extended their lead again to 39-10 with his second penalty goal with 10 minutes to play.
The Bulls did not let up with their attack though and most of the last ten minutes were played out in the Sharks half. That pressure resulted in a late try by Cornal Hendricks, edging the hosts into a record win in a final. It is apt that it was the stalwart to dot down as his industrious effort all season was instrumental in the back-to-back effort by the mighty Bulls.
Vodacom Bulls 44 (19) – Tries: Harold Vorster, Lionel Mapoe, Marcell Coetzee, Janko Swanepoel, Zak Burger, Cornal Hendricks. Conversions: Chris Smith (4). Penalty goals: Smith (2).
Cell C Sharks 10 (3) – Try: Thomas du Toit. Conversion: Curwin Bosch. Penalty goal: Bosch.
? Two from two for a sublime Vodacom Bulls in the #CarlingCurrieCup
6️⃣ tries to one as the men from Pretoria win by record margin
? Match report: https://t.co/rN43P5WUyR@blacklabelsa #TheChampionWithin #ReachForGold pic.twitter.com/4oKfNvUjXD
— Carling Currie Cup (@TheCurrieCup) September 11, 2021