Sharks end tour on a high
The Sharks capitalised on a dream start to nail down a 29-23 win over the Blues in their final Vodacom Super Rugby tour match at Eden Park in Auckland on Friday and in so doing keep them well in contention as they head into an extended home leg.
Keegan Daniel’s team can look back on a game that in many ways was the direct antithesis of last week’s defeat to the Hurricanes. In New Plymouth seven days ago the Sharks dominated territory and possession but the Hurricanes feasted on their mistakes and their defensive errors to score six tries and an easy victory.
This time it was the Blues who dominated possession, certainly in the first half, and who camped most of the match in the Sharks territory. But they kept gifting the Sharks tries just when the South African team most needed it, as had been the case with the Hurricanes last week.
The Sharks scored four tries to secure a bonus point but it was their much maligned defensive game that was the stand-out this week. They were helped by the Blues’ lack of self-belief -- the hosts made 17 handling mistakes against just seven by the Sharks -- but overall the Sharks defence was much more organised and committed than it has been in recent games.
Skipper Daniel and hooker Craig Burden, starting for the injured Bismarck du Plessis, were the outstanding players on the Sharks side, and both of those players set themselves up for the game with early intercepts that led to tries.
It was indeed a dream start for the Sharks, who although they hardly had their hands on the ball in the first few minutes, managed to get it to count tellingly in their favour when they did, with Daniel grabbing the intercept and scorching upfield before being scragged in the right hand corner. The Blues never had enough defenders back though, while the Sharks arrived in numbers, and lock Steven Sykes’s momentum was never going to be stopped once he got hold of the ball off the recycle.
What was different about the Sharks this week in comparison to previous games on tour was the way they fought to ensure that the opposition didn’t bounce back straight after every score. The Blues did storm back onto the attack, and gained momentum, but the Sharks scramble defence kept them at bay.
The Blues didn’t help themselves with some of their decision making, and they failed to take the three points that was there for the taking from a penalty, instead opting to kick it for touch. The Blues failed to capitalise on that field position, and little mistakes coupled with the Sharks’ good defence ensured that they were made to pay for their decision not to kick.
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Instead it was the Sharks who scored next, with a horrible knock-on after a good Blues lineout take giving the Sharks the opportunity to take the play into the Blues half for only the second time in the game, the other being when they scored the try. The Sharks won a penalty, Patrick Lambie kicked it, and suddenly the Sharks were 8-0 up having hardly had any of the game.
And it became better for the Sharks a few minutes later when a sloppy pass from Chris Lowrey, who also knocked on that aforementioned lineout ball, was intercepted by Burden. The hooker started life as a wing and he showed it with the way he opened space on the chasers as he dotted down between the posts to make it 15-0 with not much more than the same number of minutes gone.
That was the cue for the Blues to start a fightback, and the Sharks to fade out of the game for the next nearly half an hour, with a 20th minute penalty from Anscombe being followed by a try to loosehead Tony Woodcock in the 34th minute. The Sharks defence was impregnable to that point, but the Blues scrum won a tighthead -- a dubious one let it be said as Woodcock’s knees were clearly on the ground -- and after a few recycles the All Black forced his way over in the left corner.
Anscombe kicked a good conversion and then added a drop-goal one minute before halftime as the teams took the break with just two points in the game (15-13).
The misery of Sharks fans at seeing their team relinquish their advantage would have been compounded by the ease with which the Blues took the lead shortly after halftime, another questionable call by Walsh at a Sharks scrum, a defensive one this time, leading to the ball going loose after the clearance and Benson Stanley picking it up under the nose of opposite number JP Pietersen and scoring.
The conversion made it 20-15 to the Blues, the first and as it turned out only time in the game that they were ahead. The commentators asked how the Sharks would respond to going behind, and the answer was that they responded most impressively.
They had got the better of the kick-offs for most of the game and they won it again, playing their way into the Blues half, where a penalty advantage gave Burden the leeway he needed to break through from close quarters and Daniel was with him to round off a try which enabled the visitors to take the lead back through Lambie’s conversion.
If scrum calls made two of the Blues tries debatable, the one scored by Tim Whitehead that effectively won the game for the Sharks was, simply put, just plain wrong. Lambie had effected an excellent break off a strong scrum near the halfway line, and Whitehead allowed the ball to bobble forward before regaining it once on the other side of the Blues defenders. You are allowed to regather the ball after knocking it forward provided it does not touch the ground, but in this instance it definitely went onto a Blues hand before Whitehead gathered.
It wasn’t the luck the Blues, who now slip to a record which reads six defeats in seven starts, needed, but the Sharks will take it as they lift themselves to seventh position on the log and with the four bye points to come in two weeks' time, they can feel they are still well in contention both in the race for conference honours and the overall log.
Blues – Tries: Tony Woodcock, Benson Stenley. Conversions: Gareth Anscombe (2). Drop Goal: Gareth Anscombe. Penalties: Gareth Anscombe (2).
Sharks – Tries: Steven Sykes, Craig Burden, Keegan Daniel, Tim Whitehead. Conversions: Patrick Lambie (3). Penalty: Patrick Lambie.