Reeling after a stinging 37-27 loss to Tafel Lager Griquas last weekend, Cell C Sharks coach Sean Everitt sought a big response from his charges and they showed fight to trail by just 20-13 at half-time after having just 29% possession and losing a player to a yellow card.
The tables took a drastic turn shortly after half-time as the visitors went down to 14 men. Smelling blood in the water, the Cell C Sharks rediscovered their killer instinct as they scored 19 points in this 10-minute period, which put them on their way to a bonus-point win over the defending champions.
Originally scheduled to take place at Loftus Versfeld, the competition frontrunners collided at Jonsson Kings Park instead due to the Durbanites having missed out on a number of home games, which had to be cancelled due to the recent unrest in KwaZulu-Natal.
This proved to be a good omen for the Cell C Sharks in the end, however, they started poorly. Last weekend’s errors bled into this match as they made a meal of fielding the kick-off and then knocked on. Pressure led to a string of penalties and it was No 8 Elrigh Louw who crashed over from close range. Johan Goosen’s conversion made it 7-0 after just four minutes.
The hosts struck back brilliantly, Champion of the Match Williams providing the spark and Le Roux Roets powering over. Lionel Cronje added the extras to level the scores. Another bumbling exit gave Goosen an immediate chance to push the visitors back in front. He missed off the upright but was on song moments later after his pack had won a scrum penalty.
Strong counter-rucking by Roets won the home team a penalty and Cronje popped it over to level the scores in the 16th minute. The Vodacom Bulls were in a try-scoring mood as they turned down a number of kickable penalties and it eventually paid off when Lizo Gqoboka found a blade of grass in heavy traffic. Goosen’s conversion was good, pushing the visitors into a 17-10 lead.
A ninth Cell C Sharks penalty was the last straw for referee Marius van der Westhuizen as he handed Dylan Richardson a yellow card for a breakdown infringement. Rather curiously, the Vodacom Bulls opted to take the three points on offer rather than immediately look to exploit their numerical advantage, three points Cronje got back shortly thereafter.
Despite being down a man, the Durbanites didn’t go into defence mode, with Cronje – inside his 22 – finding Yaw Penxe with a pinpoint crosskick to keep the men in blue on their toes.
The Cell C Sharks would’ve been well-pleased when Richardson returned from the bin having traded penalties and they held off another Vodacom Bulls maul to close out the opening half, Jake White’s men holding a 20-13 lead - probably not a big-enough advantage for their sheer dominance.
Livewire No 9 Williams made another brilliant break shortly after the interval only for desperate cover defence to stop him short of the line. However, Stedman Gans, back from Blitzbok duty at the Tokyo Olympics, was yellow-carded for killing the ball at the ensuing ruck.
Unlike the previous week, the Cell C Sharks wasted little time capitalizing on their numerical advantage as Kerron van Vuuren went over from a driving maul with Cronje sending the conversion through the uprights to make matters level. Williams weaved more magic as he attacked on the blindside where a one-two with Thaakir Abrahams saw the scrumhalf put his team in the lead with a five-pointer.
There was time for one more try before the Vodacom Bulls were back to 15 men and Murray Koster was the man to dot down after he pounced on a kick by centre partner Werner Kok. Cronje was back on target to stretch the lead to 32-20.
With 10 minutes left, a penalty right in front of the posts allowed Cronje, who marshalled his troops superbly, to sew up the result with a third three-pointer that made it a three-score game.
Pressure from the Vodacom Bulls, who were looking to get something out of the game, led to a yellow card for replacement loose forward Thembelani Bholi and a try for Arno Botha. Their fighting spirit was rewarded as a final infringement saw Chris Smith slot a penalty goal to selvage a losing bonus point.
Cell C Sharks 35 (13) – Tries: Le Roux Roets, Kerron van Vuuren, Grant Williams, Murray Koster. Conversions: Lionel Cronje (3). Penalty goals: Cronje (3).
Vodacom Bulls 28 (20) – Tries: Elrigh Louw, Lizo Gqoboka, Arno Botha. Conversions: Johan Goosen (2). Penalty goals: Goosen (2), Chris Smith.