The Sharks will lean heavily on the scrum to save them from a five-year slump against the Bulls when the teams clash at Kings Park on Saturday.
This match marks the ninth time these teams have met since the 2014 opener, and the Sharks’ best result during that period was a 16-16 stalemate at Loftus Versfeld. Three weeks ago, the Bulls clinched their fourth straight win against the Durbanites – the longest streak in this rivalry’s 31-match history.
Though the Sharks have won seven of their last eight matches at Kings Park, they suffered their biggest loss against the Bulls when the teams clashed in Durban last April. But the hosts will trot on with the confidence of a good win against the Rebels while the Bulls are smarting from a hiding at the hands of the Chiefs.
Both SA conference contenders employ a high-volume kicking game and a direct, confrontational attack with limited passing, but the Sharks attack is like an American muscle car – loads of horsepower, but it handles like a wild stallion.
Boasting the comp’s second-most efficient attacking breakdown, the Sharks produce quality ball and continuity through the sheer force of unsmiling, heavy-hitters such as Dan du Preez. But for all that output, the Sharks have only scored 16 tries, less than seven other teams, and are ranked ninth for points scored.
This is in stark contrast to the Bulls who are averaging the third-most points scored per match despite an attacking breakdown that is, bar one, the least impressive in Super Rugby.
The difference is that the Sharks invest kickable penalties in a ticket to the Maul-Try Lottery while the Bulls flick the kicking tee to Handre Pollard. Captain Pretoria is Super Rugby’s leading points-scorer and while the Bulls have scored 63 points from 23 shots at goal, the Sharks have only pointed to the sticks seven times this season.
That’s an easy escape clause for the Sharks’ opponents who have happily smothered threatening forays in the knowledge that Robert du Preez will usually square his hips up for a punt to the touchline.
Conversely, the Bulls are able to build scoreboard pressure, converting into points the territorial gains made by Super Rugby’s biggest kicking game.
The Bulls air force is supported by the thick armour of a defence that boasts the best tackle efficiency (87%) and an attack loaded with the most efficient lineout (95%). Meanwhile, the Sharks have missed the sixth-most tackles despite completing the fifth-fewest takedowns, and are boosting jumpers in the third-worst lineout.
And where the Bulls are averaging among the top five in turnovers won, no team has poached less ball than the Sharks this season. That ranking is unlikely to improve this week as the Bulls have conceded the fewest turnovers per match.
But what will have had the Sharks excitedly scribbling all over the whiteboard this week is the opportunity to attack a creaking Bulls scrum operating at 88% efficiency.
The Sharks scrum is ranked seventh (93% efficiency) and they’ll be aiming to use that advantage to negate the Bulls’ strengths. If the home team gets the shove on, they’ll have a shot at breaking down their rival’s defence (by running downhill at a pack that’s backpedalling) and kicking game (by reversing territory through scrum penalties), to bank a rare win against the three-time champions.