Bulls have Kaplan to blame
Regaining your best form in a match most pundits expected you to lose is exactly how the Sharks upstaged the Bulls at fortress Loftus on Saturday! What a match! What a performance by the men in black!
I recall Victor Matfield stating on more than one occasion that the Bulls will continue with what works for them – expressing confidence in the Bulls game plan.
I am sure he will concede that this time around John Plumtree’s Sharks’ ball-in-hand strategy, applied with a tad of extra wit in the midfield, got the better of the Bulls. I last saw the Sharks play like this (especially in the second half) during last year’s Currie Cup campaign: the unmatched ball retention, patience, continuity and skilled, swift handling (all rolled into one) was too much for the gallant Bulls side. The better team won on the night.
However, before we look at the Sharks' chances in Nelson, New Zealand this coming Saturday, I have to state the obvious about the officiating in this classic match we saw on Saturday.
On three occasions the Sharks got done in by what seemed like pretty straight-forward decisions by assistant referee, Christy du Preez. On another occasion referee Jonathan Kaplan ruled a 22m restart after a Bulls player pushed the ball into his own in-goal area and over the dead-ball line.
On all three occasions the Sharks would have had attacking possession within five metres of the Bulls line - pretty telling mistakes I would say.
Nevertheless, despite these “setbacks” they remained focused on the task at hand and never flinched once during that whole second half. The Bulls, playing catch-up throughout, fumbled under pressure and just could not put enough pressure or create meaningful gaps and space to penetrate the Sharks’ defensive wall - which incidentally was much improved for this game.
The final straw came when Kaplan put an end to this classic contest in the most absurd manner. I for one, and I believe the majority of the spectators in the stadium, still felt that the Bulls could pull a draw out of the bag during those last moments, especially after they were awarded a penalty and kicked for touch almost immediately - clearly showing their intention and still having the self-belief that they could do it.
One of the scenarios that played out in my mind was the Bulls driving the ball up to the Sharks’ 22m line from where Morne Steyn would launch a final drop goal to draw level and grab the final playoff spot from the Sharks.
The contest was far from over at that stage and the match definitely not won yet. Into the limelight stepped Kaplan, penalising the Bulls for obstruction in the lineout - effectively ending this closely contested match in what can only be described as a damp squib.
The penalty was highly technical and most probably correct. But may I ask: how many similar penalties are awarded in the whole of the Super Rugby competition? How many similar transgressions are just left without even a mention?
Not many if you ask me, in fact, I am sure one could probably count them on one hand. To reserve one of those for this close contest was inappropriate and downright unnecessary - it detracted from the intense contest that played itself out for 80 minutes prior to that moment.
Now I know this sounds controversial and somewhat off the mark. However, I firmly believe that Kaplan should have let the match play itself out and should not have ended it in the anti-climactic fashion he did. I do understand the referee perspective of applying the laws of the game without exception and that it is the accepted and right thing to do. Perhaps this was one occasion where it didn’t apply?
Do the Sharks stand a chance of beating the Crusaders in New Zealand? Sure they do. I didn’t think they’d be in Nelson this coming weekend; now they are and this means they have a fighting chance to win. If they can keep the momentum of their last 40 minutes of Super Rugby they will be as good a bet as the Crusaders.
Gary Boshoff is a former SARU player and current Afrikaans rugby commentator on SuperSport.
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