Bulls flyhalf Morne Steyn kicked five penalties and a drop goal, all in the second half, as the three-time champions clung on for an 18-13 win over the Sharks on the first day of the Super 15 season on Friday.
The Bulls finally found their feet in the South African conference opener at Loftus Versfeld after neither team could score in the first 40 in a rusty, error-strewn start by both.
However, Springboks No. 10 Steyn kicked four goals in a 10-minute spell early in the second half and his drop in the 68th gave the Bulls an 18-6 cushion.
Replacement flanker Jacques Botes crossed for a try for the Sharks in the 71st, bursting onto a short pass to finish an 80-meter attack, but the Bulls held on to start their new era without former stalwarts Victor Matfield, Bakkies Botha and Fourie du Preez with a victory.
The Bulls were without 13 players from last season through retirements and transfers, including retired former skipper Matfield and fellow Springboks Botha, Du Preez and Danie Rossouw, who have moved on.
Steyn missed two shots at goal in the first half, and the Sharks missed three, but the Bulls finally found their traditional forward dominance in the opening 20 minutes of the second half to take control.
Despite a late surge from the Sharks, where Botes scored and the visitors from Durban ramped up the pressure in the last five minutes, the Bulls held out to go top of the early Super 15 standings.
“We knew it was going to be tough,” new Bulls captain Pierre Spies said. “Nil-nil at halftime, we knew we needed hard work in the second half, luckily the boys got some momentum and Morne made the difference. That’s why it’s -important to have guys like that in your team.”
Matfield is now dividing his time between TV commentary work and his role as Bulls lineout coach, and presented an unfamiliar image in a suit and tie and holding a microphone on the sidelines at Loftus — where he played for a decade before retiring following last year’s World Cup.
South Africa flyhalf Steyn also wasn’t himself as he pushed shots wide of the right-hand post in the 12th and 24th minutes. Sharks No. 10 Pat Lambie missed two kicks in the first half and teammate Riaan Viljoen was off target with a 60-meter effort.
Steyn and Lambie swapped penalties in the first five minutes of the second to finally get the scoreboard working, but with the Bulls on top their No. 10 slotted over again in the 49th, 54th, 56th and 58th — the last after a weaving break from Francois Hougaard, Du Preez’s replacement at scrumhalf.
Lambie added a second penalty only for Steyn to reply with a drop from in front as a bunch of handling errors from both teams prevented any clear cut try-scoring opportunities until the last 10 minutes.
Replacement back and South Africa Sevens player Paul Jordaan began the Sharks’ long-range attack, wing Lwazi Mvovo motored down the left side of the pitch and Botes eventually took a short pass from the ruck to carve through.
Lambie’s conversion closed it to five points and the Sharks launched two late attacks, but the Bulls wouldn’t budge.
Juandre Kruger, Matfield’s replacement in the blue No. 5 jersey, won the man of the match award after an impressive show in the middle of the Bulls lineout.
“He’s a legend of the game and I appreciate all his help for the team,” Kruger said of Matfield, his new lineout coach.