It took the Bulls 99 minutes to subdue the Sharks but it would have been the biggest implosion had the hosts not won their first Currie Cup final since 2009.
Duane Vermeulen’s Bulls took their supporters on a roller coaster ride before securing a 26-19 extra-time win.
It was a victory that should never have been in doubt, but on the hour there would have been all-round flashes of a potential horror ending to what had been an outstanding season for the Bulls.
They won South Africa’s league version of Super Rugby Unlocked, carried over points from that tournament to the Currie Cup, and ultimately triumphed in a final that went 100 minutes and was only decided a minute shy of that 100th minute.
The Bulls had form and home ground advantage for the final. The advantage came from the fact that they didn’t have to travel for a semi-final or a final. The Sharks had won in Cape Town and threatened to win again at Loftus in Pretoria.
And they may just have shocked the hosts had they opted for a potential three points on three different occasions when leading 19-16 with 20 minutes to play.
There are those would would argue that kicking to the corner was the only option because Sharks flyhalf Curwin Bosch had already missed four penalties and two drop goals, but three of those Bosch missed penalty kicks were from 50-plus metres.
Bosch had also kicked two big penalties, with one monster effort close to 65 metres on the angle.
Bosch’s five penalty misses (he would fail with another 50 metre effort in extra time) have to be put in context. Only a handful of goalkickers in world rugby would have the capacity to even line up those attempts.
I don’t subscribe to the view that Bosch’s boot was off target. He didn’t miss a sitter all day. He took on kicks that ordinarily would have been kicks to the corner.
Yet when his team had the option for a ‘gimme’ the decision was to go for the corner kick, the lineout drive and the potential of five points. But the Sharks lineout was even less threatening than Bosch when lining up kicks close to 60 metres.
The Sharks also had opportunities to take the game away from the Bulls when leading 19-9, but they couldn’t because, despite a scoreboard advantage, they were not in control of the game. They were only leading 19-9 because of Bosch’s 14 points through three long range penalties and a magnificent touchline conversion.
Give the young man a break. His goalkicking, from extreme distances, would have fashioned an unlikely win against all the odds, just as he did a week ago against Western Province at Newlands.
The Bulls, throughout, were the team in charge even though they couldn’t turn every advantage into a commanding lead.
Replacement flyhalf Chris Smith had the chance to win the game in regulation time but he missed a pressure-free drop goal in the 78th minute. It was pressure-free because he was playing a penalty advantage. He then hooked a penalty kick he ordinarily has made all his career to win the final with the last kick of regulation time.
Pressure is a monster. Smith’s career goalkicking success rate before that kick was 86 percent. But he never looked close to making the match-winning three-pointer.
He will be relieved that the final wasn’t lost in that moment. Neither was it lost in extra time when he also missed one penalty kick from 51 metres.
The Bulls veteran starting flyhalf Morne Steyn also missed a long-range effort in the first half and uncharacteristically kicked a 22 restart directly into touch in the 39th minute that allowed the Sharks to strike from the restart scrum.
It was a tough day for any player wearing No 10. The conditions were difficult and unlike anything traditional at Loftus because it was a final played on the 30th January.
Cut all three flyhalves some slack because all three had moments in which they made telling contributions.
Vermeulen’s leadership was monumental in the final 10 minutes of extra time. Replacement loose-forward Arno Botha was massive in the last quarter of the final and the impact of the Bulls bench determined who would finish the final pressing for victory.
The statistics were one-sided. On 90 minutes, the Bulls had made just 39 tackles to the Sharks 68, the Bulls had missed just three tackles to the Sharks 20 and the Bulls enjoyed 55 percent territory and possession advantage. Yet the scores were 19-all and one try each.
The momentum in the final 10 minutes was with the Bulls. They had six penalty advantages from right in front in a sustained attack in the final three minutes of the match before Botha scored the Bulls and his second try to seal the victory.
Bulls inside centre Cornal Hendricks was explosive in the build-up to the final score. Hendricks, who was named the player of the final, was powerful in breaking tackles, gave the Bulls an advantage in the collisions in those final plays and throughout the match.
And while the Sharks for an hour enjoyed an advantage at the breakdown, they just didn’t have enough possession and field position to translate being brave into being better.
Bulls – Tries: Arno Botha (2). Conversions: Morne Steyn, Chris Smith. Penalties: Steyn (4).
Sharks – Try: Sbu Nkosi. Conversion: Curwin Bosch. Penalties: Bosch (4).
Bulls – 15 David Kriel, 14 Kurt-Lee Arendse, 13 Marco Jansen van Vuren, 12 Cornal Hendricks, 11 Stravino Jacobs, 10 Morne Steyn, 9 Ivan van Zyl, 8 Duane Vermeulen (c), 7 Elrigh Louw, 6 Marco van Staden, 5 Ruan Nortje, 4 Sintu Manjezi, 3 Trevor Nyakane, 2 Johan Grobbelaar, 1 Lizo Gqoboka.
Subs: 16 Schalk Erasmus, 17 Jacques van Rooyen, 18 Mornay Smith, 19 Jan Uys, 20 Arno Botha, 21 Embrose Papier, 22 Chris Smith, 23 Marnus Potgieter.
Sharks – 15 Aphelele Fassi, 14 Sbu Nkosi, 13 Lukhanyo Am (c), 12 Marius Louw, 11 Yaw Penxe, 10 Curwin Bosch, 9 Jaden Hendrikse, 8 Sikhumbuzo Notshe, 7 Henco Venter, 6 Dylan Richardson 5 Ruben van Heerden, 4 JJ van Mescht, 3 Thomas du Toit, 2 Fezokuhle Mbatha, 1 Ox Nche.
Subs: 16 Dan Jooste, 17 Mzamo Majola, 18 Michael Kumbirai, 19 Hyron Andrews, 20 Thembelani Bholi, 21 Sanele Nohamba, 22 Jeremy Ward, 23 Manie Libbok.