Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - The protracted dust-up between rival hookers Akker van der Merwe and Schalk Brits being main point of discussion rather summed up another tepid South African derby in Super Rugby on Saturday.
For the record, the Bulls edged their "bunny" team, if you like, the Sharks by a 19-16 margin at steamy Kings Park, to claw their way to within a single point of leaders the Lions - on a bye weekend - at the top of the SA conference.
In scoreboard terms, it amounted to decent atonement for the shock home drubbing at the hands of the Chiefs last time out, although truth be told the Bulls weren't anything to rave about in a strictly two-star (and that’s pushing it?) sort of encounter.
If anything, the Sharks perked up to a stronger extent in the second half after a mutually yawn-inducing first and will rue botching this one after bossing nearly 60 percent of the possession and creating better try chances - including seeing a dubious TMO decision rule out one dot-down on the grounds that the ball had shaved the touchline earlier in the move.
But the unerring boot of Springbok first-choice flyhalf Handre Pollard ultimately made the difference, including his calm goaling of a 79th-minute penalty after an inspired Bulls scrum to break a 16-16 deadlock at that point.
By contrast, opposite number Robert du Preez was erratic off the tee and also responsible for a bad missed tackle on Burger Odendaal that saw the inside centre majestically tee up midfield partner Jesse Kriel for a crucial score.
One thing would have seemed pretty obvious to a moderate, at best, and often restless Durban crowd: neither outfit looked remotely like 2019 title material based on this showing, marked by a consistently annoying, disruptive error rate and rank conservatism in playing styles far too often.
Indeed, you could argue that the only meaningful period of "punch" was when an unsavoury brawl suddenly erupted in the second half between Van der Merwe and Brits (remember, the former was well less than pleased late last season when the notably ageing latter eclipsed him to Springbok squad presence).
It did appear as if the Sharks' "Angry Warthog" had been the first transgressor, seemingly leading with his head on his direct rival at a ruck, who then retaliated to spark the long-lasting dingdong, including mutual use of fists.
Frankly, team-mates in both colours could have done more to haul them apart quicker, which might just have helped stave off the red-card status handed to the hookers by New Zealand referee Mike Fraser - a ruling that was later backed in the SuperSport studio by former Bok coach Nick Mallett.
Further sanction is likely to follow, leaving a particularly pronounced short-term crisis in the berth for the Sharks, who had already tried to beef their resources in the specialist position, after the latest Chiliboy Ralepelle alleged doping violation, by the luckless attempt to coax Craig Burden back into the picture with the franchise - he has already been struck down by a bicep injury likely to rule him out for a couple of months at least.
The Sharks have subsided now to a 50 percent record (three wins, three reverses), a fate that has also befallen compatriots the Stormers who earlier suffered a second successive defeat (24-9 to the Blues) in New Zealand.
Although they move on to possibly less taxing business in Australia for a couple more tour weeks, the Capetonians threw everything into the passionate Auckland clash and to come out with nothing would have been a heart-breaker for many in their ranks, and especially their forward unit who once again deserved better.
Some of the officiating would have infuriated them, and with reason, but the fact remains that the Stormers, for all their demonic energy on Saturday, struggle desperately to manufacture tries in open play.
They did not cross the whitewash once against the Blues, leaving them on a tournament-worst nine tries from six games.
Hampered by injuries to Dan du Plessis and Wilco Louw that forced both from the field prematurely - bank on other niggles to be reported soon from the camp as well - their collective humour would only have been worse afterwards because substitute SP Marais missed a straightforward penalty attempt in the 71st minute that would have advanced them to within bonus-point territory and at a time when the hosts were also down to 14 men.
As if to aggravate the Stormers’ plight, there is only a six-day turnaround to their Friday date in Brisbane.
Next weekend's fixtures (home teams first, all kick-offs SA time):
Friday: Highlanders v Hurricanes, 08:35; Reds v Stormers, 11:00; Lions v Sharks, 19:10. Saturday: Crusaders v Brumbies, 06:15; Blues v Waratahs, 08:35; Rebels v Sunwolves, 10:45; Bulls v Jaguares, 15:05. Bye: Chiefs.
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