Sharks fightback defeats the champs
The Sharks rose phoenix-like from the ashes to stage one of Vodacom Super Rugby’s great fightbacks to defeat the champion Reds 27-22 at Mr Price Kings Park on Saturday evening.
Down 17-0 after half an hour, the Sharks were displaying all the problems that had contributed to a slow start to the season, with the lineout struggling and the hosts generally battling to hold on to their set-phase ball against a team that up to that stage dominated 75% of the ball in the possession battle.
With huge holes opening in the Sharks' defensive system, players such as Will Genia and Rob Davies poured through to exert pressure, and the Sharks were doing well to be only 17 points behind.
But as emphatically as they were outplayed up to that point, so the tide turned as comprehensively in their favour after that.
Once given a sniff, they staged a rousing fightback in which their attacking game off turnover ball clicked, something that man -of-the-match Bismarck du Plessis played a big part in as he again made several telling steals of Reds ball.
The Sharks scored 27 points to five in the last 50 minutes of the match and were pressing for a bonus point at the final whistle.
They didn’t get it in the end, but the four log points for the win was enough to bounce them back into the battle for South African conference honours, and after two successive home wins, they now leave for the overseas leg on Sunday morning with some confidence.
It was a bizarre game though, and it is hard to read long-term meaning into it given the bad luck both teams endured when it came to injuries both before and during the game.
The Sharks for a start were rocked back on their heels immediately before kick-off with the withdrawal of JP Pietersen after he injured himself in the pre-match warmup.
That necessitated a switch, with Meyer Bosman coming into the starting team and Tim Whitehead moving to outside centre. Springbok Marius Bosman, who played in the curtain-raiser, was hurriedly moved into the squad on the bench.
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During the game first-choice lock Steven Sykes was led away from the field with an injury which may be serious enough to keep him from touring. And after Jannie du Plessis limped off, his replacement Wiehahn Herbst then also sustained an injury, which necessitated uncontested scrums.
If the Sharks were disrupted though, it was nothing in comparison to the Reds, who were already starting without key backline players like Anthony Fainga’a and who were forced to move Mike Harris from flyhalf to inside centre. Harris didn’t last the first half before going off, and so did the chosen flyhalf Ben Lucas.
It meant that Will Genia had to move to flyhalf from scrumhalf, and Genia also took over the goalkicking duties after starting as third choice.
There were other players out of position, such as Davies playing fullback, so it probably wasn’t surprising that the Reds looked quite disorganised when the Sharks started to exert pressure in the second half.
It was the Sharks though who were under pressure in the first half. They started off sticking to a pick and go formula in the inclement conditions, which were reminiscent more of Scotland than Durban at this time of the year – something by the way which both teams overcame to provide a really thrilling spectacle.
The Reds were maybe guilty of trying to play from too deep in the first 10 minutes, but the players were running onto the passes at pace and the angles of attack were clever, so it wasn’t too much of a surprise when James Hansen burst off the side of a maul from close range to weave through for a converted try to make it 7-0.
Harris missed a penalty after a quarter of an hour but the Reds were all over the Sharks at the end of the opening 20 minutes, with the tackle count showing that the Sharks had made 34 tackles up to that point and missed nine.
Genia, at that stage still playing at scrumhalf, was back to his awesome best, and with the Sharks losing the penalty count, they were on the back foot.
Even when Luke Morohan came on for Harris after 22 minutes it didn’t herald a turning point.
Instead it heralded a great passage of play from the Reds, who capitalised on a poor clearance from Patrick Lambie to strike with a multi-phase attack which put Scott Higginbotham in for the second try of the match.
In the 30th minute the Reds kicked a penalty through Lucas, and Keegan Daniel should have been preparing his losing speech, particularly as the team had just lost their industrious lock, Sykes.
However it was to prove a dream debut for his replacement Jandre Marair, who was put in space off a ruck to score his team’s first try with his first touch of the ball in senior rugby as the Sharks started to throw caution to the wind and keep ball in hand.
Lambie’s conversion made it 17-7 and it could well have been 17-14 shortly after that as with three minutes left in the half Whitehead burst through the Reds' first-line defence to put Lwazi Mvovo in, only for referee Jonathan Kaplan to be informed by assistant ref Kobus Wessels that Willem Alberts had disrupted the Reds by hitting a ruck illegally in the build-up.
It was the right call, but so was the yellow card awarded against Digby Ioane towards the end of the half, with the Reds being reduced to 14 men at the same time as Lambie kicked the penalty that brought the Sharks into range at the break (17-10).
The Sharks, playing against a Reds team a man down, retained the momentum in the early stages of the second half, with Lambie further narrowing the deficit with a penalty soon after the restart.
With Herbst joining Du Plessis in making some crucial steals, it was suddenly the Sharks who were in the ascendancy, something they confirmed when skipper Daniel used his pace off the back of a strong attacking scrum to put his team into the lead for the first time.
The Reds struck back immediately with a try to replacement scrumhalf Nick Frisby after he had intercepted a Sharks pass and then kicked ahead for Ioane to chase and transfer back to him on the line.
But Genia is clearly no place-kicker, and he missed the difficult conversion and also a kickable penalty later on.
The Sharks scored what was to prove the winning try a full 21 minutes from time, again the product of good scavenging from Bismarck du Plessis, with a pinpoint overhead pass from Daniel creating the bit of space that fullback Riaan Viljoen needed to go in and reclaim the lead for his team for what was to prove the last time.
The Sharks – Tries: Jandre Marais, Keegan Daniels, Riaan Viljoen. Conversion: Patrick Lambie (2). Penalties: Patrick Lambie(2)
Reds –Tries: James Hanson, Scott Higginbotham, Nick Frisby. Conversions: Mike Harris, Ben Lucas. Penalty: Ben Lucas