McLeod celebrates landmark in style
It was a case of the new grabbing all the early attention before being surpassed by the old later on as the Sharks soared to the top of the Absa Currie Cup log with a 34-18 win over the Vodacom Blue Bulls at Growthpoint Kings Park on Saturday.
But the win was more hard work than the scoreline might suggest.
Up until the 50th minute it was nip and tuck, with the Bulls’ 19-year-old debutant Handre Pollard hogging all the attention as he effected a massive improvement to the Pretoria team’s game and ensured that with just under half an hour to play, the scores were locked together at 13-all.
But then came the entry of scrumhalf Charl McLeod from the bench for his 50th Currie Cup game in a Sharks jersey, and his impact on the match was massive as he inspired the urgency and incisiveness around the fringes that had been missing before.
It was McLeod who charged down a Pollard kick inside the Bulls’ in-goal area to set up an attacking scrum when the home team was ahead just 20-13.
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Sharks skipper Jacques Botes, another veteran who was impressive in the game, took the ball off the back of a strong set-piece and McLeod, who was up on his outside, was able to force himself over for the try.
The score was a fitting cap to an inspired performance from the half-centurion.
The conversion from Sharks flyhalf Fred Zeilinga made it 27-13, and that was effectively game, set and match.
The Sharks weren't finished though, and another good bit of play from Botes in getting between the Bulls' players created a turnover opportunity which Heimar Williams carried up towards the line before the ball was moved to the right towards the overlap, with lock Marco Wentzel completing the attack by going over in the corner to secure the bonus-point try with 10 minutes to go.
The Bulls did come back to score a late try to Akona Ndungane, who also scored their first, but by then the result was beyond doubt and the five-pointer was no more than a consolation effort for the well beaten visitors.
That they would be well beaten was debatable for most of the game, particularly when the Bulls produced a sublime attacking sweep early in the match to put Ndungane in for his first try.
Pollard had contributed more than his fair share in the attack, and his pinpoint long pass across the face of the Sharks' defence near their line to fullback Jurgen Visser set up the score.
The Sharks though had shown their intent early on to play a territory game, and in this regard their young flyhalf Fred Zeilinga is no slouch either.
It was Zeilinga’s kick that put Bulls fullback Visser under pressure as he was played into the corner near his own line, and his opposite number SP Marais was up to charge down the attempted clearance and score.
Zeilinga’s excellent conversion kick from the touchline ensured that the early Bulls score was completely cancelled out.
Zeilinga propelled the score on by six points by adding two penalties after that, the second on the stroke of halftime as the Sharks went to the break 13-10 up.
However, the Bulls had been the better team in the first 40 minutes, and had been their own worst enemies by making too many silly mistakes.
They were also punished for their indiscipline, and age-group star Paul Willemse was a repeat infringer and needs to clean up his act if he wants to survive at this level of the game.
One incident could have cost the Bulls three points, as we never got to see what the TMO would have ruled after a long-range drop goal attempt from Pollard.
Jonathan Kaplan, who really showed the other referees in this competition how it should be done with his superb performance with the whistle in this game, was approached by the assistant referee and was forced to act on his advice without the TMO being called in to adjudge on the drop.
Pollard really does look a gem. His ability to ask questions of the opposing defenders by playing at the gainline was accompanied by a good tactical kicking performance.
He was far from perfect, and had that aforementioned kick charged down and also missed a crucial kickable penalty, but if you take a long-term view, he was a major positive for the Bulls on the day.
Kyle Cooper blotted his copybook by being yellow-carded later in the game, but he joined McLeod in making a positive impact as the Sharks upped their game in the last half hour.
The try that broke the back of the Bulls’ strong challenge came in the 54th minute, Keegan Daniel making a run up the right touchline before transferring inside for young centre Williams to score.
The Sharks were kept in the game in the first half by the industriousness of their loose forwards, with Botes leading from the front by forcing turnovers in the first half that helped halt the Bulls’ momentum. The ever-impressive Jean Deysel joined him in that regard later on.
The win enables the Sharks to take a two-point lead at the top of the log as they head to Cape Town next week to play DHL Western Province.
With WP’s draw against the Lions the previous night effectively making it a three-way fight at the top, the round that takes us to the halfway point in the competition is going to be a decisive one.
Whether or not the game at Newlands will be to determine who tops the log at the halfway point will depend on how the resurgent Toyota Free State Cheetahs, currently in second position ahead of Province on points difference as they share the same number of log points, go against the Bulls at Loftus.
The Bulls did offer a glimmer of hope to their suffering fans, but will have to improve on their discipline if they want to halt their losing sequence
THE SHARKS – Tries: SP Marais, Heimar Williams, Charl McLeod, Marco Wentzel. Conversions: Fred Zeilinga (4). Penalties: Zeilinga (2).
VODACOM BLUE BULLS – Tries: Akona Ndungane (2). Conversion: Handre Pollard. Penalties: Pollard (2).