A display of true grit

2011-06-20 00:00

IT was to be a memorable Loftus opskop, a toast to Bakkies Botha’s 100th Super Rugby cap, a last hurrah to three South African legends and a celebration of the Bulls’ remarkable charge into the play-offs.

But the Sharks were handed a different script and they proved party poopers of note at Loftus on Saturday evening.

After sleepwalking much of their way through 15 rounds of Super Rugby, they suddenly burst into life to record a compelling 26-23 victory over the Bulls.

The win ended the Bulls’ six-match winning streak and their impressive reign as Super Rugby champions.

The Sharks now advance to a quarter-final play-off and trek off to far-off Nelson to meet the Crusaders on Saturday.

The Pretoria farewell for the Bulls’ three departing heroes, Botha, Victor Matfield and Fourie du Preez, was largely forgotten in the gloom of the most unexpected of defeats.

But at least the significance of the occasion was not lost on Bulls captain Matfield.

“This was a very special day for the three of us,” said Matfield. “Maybe this is the last time and I want to thank the Loftus crowd for their support.”

Sharks captain on the day Stefan Terblanche also paid tribute to the capacity 50 000 crowd.

“What a place to play rugby. It’s a bit unfair that after 1 200 minutes of rugby in the season it had to come down to the final 80 minutes of the season,” he added.

Matfield said the Sharks had deserved their win.

“It was very tough. They came out firing and played very well, keeping us under pressure. We made too many mistakes and gave them possession.”

The win was a critical one for the Sharks, who finally played to their potential.

Coach John Plumtree said before the game that he wanted the Sharks to start and end well and play very well in between. And that is precisely what they did in their first 80-minute performance of the season.

“Although we love our wives, our girlfriends and our kids, we were determined not to be at home next weekend,” said Terblanche. “We wanted to be still playing.”

While the Loftus crowd and the Sharks’ detractors were left bewildered by the weekend result, those closest to the squad were not.

The Sharks had been on a war footing all week and decamped to Rustenburg to prepare for this decisive battle at the Royal Bafokeng Sports Complex.

Plumtree said the Sharks had left town to get away from the negativity which surrounded the game.

“I don’t think there were many people who believed that we could beat the Bulls and you need to get away from that,” Plumtree said.

“It worked nicely, but I’m only saying that because we won,” he added with a smile.

His selections also worked a treat. Fredrick Michalak, suddenly selected at flyalf, added a freshness and creative edge to the Sharks’ attack while Pat Lambie, at fullback, kept popping up in a variety of backline roles.

But Plumtree, for 15 very good reasons, refused to single out any individuals.

“It needed a special performance against a great Bulls side, playing at home in front of their crowd. It was very brave and we showed for 80 minutes that we can work as a group. And that was the most pleasing thing,” said Plumtree.

The Sharks second-row of the improving Gerhard Mostert and Alistair Hargreaves stood up surprisingly well against the famous Bulls lineout.

Plumtree said that the lineout was “the heart and soul of Bulls rugby” and was delighted that his men stuck to the set plan in nullifying it.

“We needed to stick to the plan and not giving the Bulls a lot of lineouts was important. We had to kick, chase and then tackle,” he said.

“There is not one way to beat them, but whatever happens you have to be committed.

“Fred (Michalak) showed his experience out there and that was vital at a big stage like this,” said Plumtree.

“A guy like Pat Lambie is going to learn a lot from Fred who gave us what we wanted.”

While it was stirring team effort, a number of individuals, among them Pietersen, Charl McLeod and Mostert, were particularly effective. The much-maligned Bosman in the Sharks midfield was also influential both on attack and defence.

The Sharks should have a full squad of fit players available for the quarter-finals and Plumtree said the Loftus win would boost the Sharks’ confidence.

“Now we have to get through all the travel and somehow be fresh for the Crusaders. That’s the big challenge.”

But, just for the moment, Sharks supporters will be lying back and thinking of Loftus.

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