South Africa’s Super Rugby landscape is beginning to morph into a superbly competitive conference. The rivalry between the Sharks and Bulls is easily the bitterest feud between two clubs since Rugby became professional in South Africa. The rivalry runs deeper than just dividing families along blue or black and white, it is an absolute clash of cultures, not just in terms of their respective teams playing style but also of the vast difference in fans expectations, cities and history.
The feud began all the way in 1990, the Natal Sharks or Banana Boys as they were known back then were celebrating their 100 year anniversary as a Union. During the regular season fixture between the Northern Transvaal (Bulls) and Natal (Sharks) the Bulls won at a canter 24-9 in Durban. However things were to change dramatically come the grand final as the Sharks beat the Bulls to win their first Currie Cup title at Loftus Versveld. Stunning and silencing a partisan Bulls crowd who assumed the title was as good as theirs.
The Bulls having had a monopoly of the Currie Cup title would then forge their own chapter in Super Rugby and gain some revenge against their coastal foes. The Super Rugby final of 2007 will live long in the memories of both sets of tribes, the Sharks this time were a whisker away from claiming their maiden title. However it was the Bulls who would gate crash the party in Durban in unceremonious circumstances, Bryan Habana scoring the winning try with the last movement of the game. I have never seen Kings Park so quiet and look so blue after a game…
As cities they contrast like no others in South Africa, Pretoria is on the highveld – which means the ball travels immensely further when kicking due to the thin air. The fields are bone hard, the supporters are vociferous in the extreme and their history provokes an immense amount of pride and dignity for the Bulls loyal followers and players. Rugby in Pretoria is like American Football in Texas, it is more than a religion, it is the very fabric which holds the city, state together. The Bulls are deemed an institution whereby if you want the chance for Springbok colours, they are your best bet.
On the east coast of South Africa, Shark country is the city of Durban with its sweltering year round summer it is a major challenge to play rugby during the summer months. The fields here are lush, the ball doesn’t travel very far when kicking and the supporters are more laid back in their approach. However Durbanites are not afraid to let their displeasure be shown at a poor performance and are notorious for making the players know exactly what they think after the final whistle. The Sharks history has only came to fruition after the 90’s, they have won multiple Currie Cups but ignominiously have never won a Super Rugby title.
Thus these two cultures and histories collide this Saturday as both teams are the early front runners for the South African conference top spot, guaranteeing home ground advantage for the playoffs. Already at this premature stage of the season, this game is a must win for both teams. For The Sharks the mental edge that can be gained with a victory over your bitter rivals and getting your season back on track is the only thing that will suffice.
For the Bulls it is a case of continuing their good form at home, insuring Loftus is the fortress it can be and has been in the past.
There are some superb match ups this weekend, at number eight Duane Vermuelen and Dan Du Preez go toe to toe. Vermuelen is arguably the beating heart of the Springbok team when he plays and he is carrying that charisma with him at the Bulls. At outside centre Lukhanyo Am and Jesse Kriel will also front this weekend, Am has the distribution skills and Kriel is a consummate finisher, a “Springbok trial” in itself between the two. Lastly the battle of flyhalves Handre Pollard is South Africa’s first choice and now that he is fit and firing his true range of skills have been on show. Rob Du Preez has been steady so far but of course in it all depends which forward pack has the ascendancy which will determine how their respective games go.
Each team will write a new chapter in this longstanding rivalry on Saturday, and without these clashes of culture it would be just another game. But it’s never just a game when the Sharks and Bulls play.
Written By Brandon Going