The Sharks and new boss Jake White began their bid for a first Super Rugby title with a 31-16 bonus-point win over the three-time champion Bulls at Kings Park on Saturday.
The Sharks laid down strong credentials as a title contender in romping to a 23-9 halftime lead. They conceded the Bulls' only try while they were a man short, but scored a fourth bonus-point try in injury time through flyhalf Pat Lambie, who contributed 16 points in all.
With 11 Springboks starters and three on the bench, the Sharks were already favoured over a Bulls side in transition. Four times a finalist, the Sharks are looking to rebound in a big way after finishing second-to-last in the 2013 South African conference.
White led the ACT Brumbies to last year's final, stopping the Bulls in the semifinals, but resigned to come home and become the Sharks' director of rugby. For now, his comeback trumps Victor Matfield's.
The great lock, who won the 2007 World Cup under White, retired after the 2011 World Cup but began training earnestly in October for a comeback he made official last month. His 46th-minute appearance tied him for most Super Rugby appearances by a South African, shared with John Smit and AJ Venter, and five minutes later he gave away a penalty Frans Steyn couldn't goal from halfway.
There was little that didn't go right for the Sharks.
The first try was perfect execution of a text book plan. The ball flew to the backs off the top of a lineout and Lambie patiently timed his pass until Lwazi Mvovo was in the gap. Mvovo then sent centre Paul Jordaan in from the 22 in the 10th minute.
The second try was shady. Scrumhalf Cobus Reinach scored intercepting opposite Francois Hougaard, but it could have been denied by video review as the Sharks' Anton Bresler knocked the lineout ball out of opposite Paul Williams' hands while they were still in the air.
The Sharks had a 16-9 lead they didn't deserve until seconds before halftime, when they ensured the result was in hand with their third try, another beauty. Bulls captain Pierre Spies nicked the ball from a Sharks ruck, but was stripped himself by Reinach. Then inside centre Steyn, on the Sharks 22, cross-kicked to the right wing for all-alone Odwa Ndungane, who caught the ball on the run 10 metres out and was too close to the tryline for the defence.
Lambie's conversion from touch gave the Sharks a 23-9 lead that was too big to overcome for the Bulls.
Their try in the 72nd from a lineout drive came while replacement Jean Deysel was in the sin-bin for deliberately collapsing a maul.
Still, the Sharks had the last say with Bulls winger Bjorn Basson in the sin-bin. Soon after fixing a bloody nose and mouth, Lambie tapped a penalty and took back the ruck ball, dummied and scored. He didn't convert, his third miss in seven goalkick attempts.
With the Lions beating the Cheetahs 21-20 the only other action, Super Rugby begins in New Zealand and Australia next week.
Sharks 31 (Paul Jordaan, Cobus Reinach, Odwa Ndungane, Pat Lambie tries; Lambie conversion, 3 penalties), Bulls 16 (Jonathan Ross try; Louis Fouche 2 penalties, dropped goal, Handre Pollard conversion). HT: 23-9