Sharks take firm control of log race
The Sharks picked up a full house of log points as they beat hoodoo team Free State Cheetahs 30-16 at Absa Stadium in Durban on Saturday afternoon.
Coach John Plumtree asked for an 80-minute performance from his charges, and he got it. While the Sharks never quite hit the heights they occasionally reached in recent weeks, such as in the first half against the Bulls at Loftus two weeks ago, they nonetheless dominated the game – and this time they did not let it slip.
They wrapped up the four-try bonus point with a 78th-minute try to reserve scrumhalf Rory Kockott, the second score by the Durbanites that came courtesy of a solid scrum and a surge off the back by No 8 Ryan Kankowski.
It had been Kankowski who had set the Sharks on the road to victory by bursting off a solid scrum in the first half, with his electrifying run setting up the opportunity for wing Odwa Ndungane to go over in the right corner.
That was the second Sharks try, and it was the one that put a little bit of daylight between the hosts and the Cheetahs as they surged to an 18-9 lead at the break. The Cheetahs came back hard at them early in the second half, and the Sharks lead was cut to just two points within four minutes of the restart.
It stayed like that until the 67th minute, which was when some quick thinking from scrumhalf Charl McLeod exploited some lax Cheetahs defence as he took the tap from a penalty that was easily kickable. Had he not made something of it, his coach John Plumtree might well have come down hard on him afterwards, but thanks to his blistering speed off the mark, he was able to break the initial Cheetahs defence and go over untouched.
The conversion made it a nine-point buffer with 13 minutes to go, and after that it was just really a question of who would get the extra bonus points on offer – the Sharks or the Cheetahs. Thanks to Kankowski, it turned out to be the Sharks, and that leaves the Cheetahs with a bit of a mountain to climb now if they want to get into the top two and secure home-ground advantage in the semifinals.
They now trail second-placed Western Province by six points with three matches to go, and are going to have to rely on other results going their way to lift themselves back into the top bracket. The Sharks, by contrast, now have an eight-point advantage over WP, and a win over the Lions in Johannesburg next week should be enough to render their last league match at Newlands irrelevant to their goal of topping the final log.
After WP’s impressive performance against the Pumas in Nelspruit the night before, the Sharks needed to make a statement, and while for much of the way it was much closer than the final scoreline indicates, the Sharks should feel they more than achieved their objective.
For a start, their tight five, perceived as a vulnerability beforehand, more than stood its ground against the much heavier Cheetahs pack. The front row of Patric Cilliers, Craig Burden and Eugene van Staden has matured hugely in the absence of key Springboks, and the way they turned over Cheetahs scrum ball on occasion should have been hugely encouraging for the coaching staff as they assess their front-row depth ahead of next year’s Super Rugby.
Thanks to the strong Sharks scrumming, the Cheetahs were unable to really start anything off the scrum, which had been their strong point when they won in Durban in last year’s semifinal. But it was in the battle on the ground and in the recycles in general that the Sharks really excelled, preventing the Cheetahs from attaining anything resembling continuity or momentum.
Starved for the most part of possession, the Cheetahs were forced to live off scraps. That is something they have managed to do against the Sharks in the past, but not this time, with new Sharks recruit Meyer Bosman, playing inside centre for the Cheetahs, producing one of his less impressive performances of recent times.
Given the way the Sharks dominated possession, it was remarkable that the Cheetahs were in the game for most of the way.
Indeed, it was the Cheetahs who scored first through a Louis Strydom penalty before the Sharks were the first to cross the line when at the end of a multi-phase build-up the big ball-carrier Willem Alberts simply proved unstoppable as he received the ball standing off the loose scrum just metres from the Cheetahs line.
Two more penalties, one a long range effort from Bosman, put the Cheetahs back into the lead before Patrick Lambie, who had another impressive game with his decision-making, regained the lead with an angled penalty. Then came the Ndungane try and another Lambie penalty before the Cheetahs struck back with a try rounded off by lock Francois Uys, who burrowed over near the posts at the end of a move that started with a tap penalty after 44 minutes.
The Cheetahs might have kicked themselves when just a few minutes later they received a kickable penalty which would have put them back into the lead at a stage when it could have proved a crucial psychological boost, but ended up being fortunate to deny the Sharks a try as the hosts hammered back with an excellent counter-attack.
Given the Sharks’ overall superiority, however, it is unlikely a different decision would have made that much difference to the Cheetahs, who were well beaten on the day and may have been carrying the after-effects of their bruising victory over the Blue Bulls in Bloemfontein the previous week.
Sharks – Tries: Willem Alberts, Odwa Ndungane, Charl McLeod and Rory Kockott; Conversions: Patrick Lambie 2; Penalties: Patrick Lambie 2.
Cheetahs – Try: Francois Uys; Conversion: Louis Strydom; Penalties: Louis Strydom 2 and Meyer Bosman.