21 July 2014
The Sharks will continue to fly the South African flag in the Super Rugby playoffs after they qualified for the semi-finals following a hard-fought 31-27 victory over the Highlanders in Durban on Saturday evening.
When the teams met earlier in the season on the same ground, the Kiwis ran in four tries to nil in a shock 34-18 victory. They gave the Sharks all they could handle the second time around too, but on this occasion the South African conference winners came away victorious.
The Sharks’ reward for winning is a second showdown of the season with the Crusaders in Christchurch. In their first clash at the AMI Stadium, the men from Durban recorded a memorable 30-25 victory after being reduced to 14 players from the 17th minute onward. Winning again in Christchurch would be some feat.
Their victory over the Highlanders was laid up front by the scrum, which dominated their opponents and won a number of penalties as a result of their superiority. They won the battle of the breakdowns and were very effective when using the driving maul.
The men from the south island, however, were able to breach the Sharks’ tryline three times, with Malakai Fekitoa, Kane Hames and Phil Burleigh all going over for five-pointers. Lima Sopoaga converted all three tries and landed a penalty.
The Sharks replied with tries from Marcell Coetzee, Bismarck du Plessis and Tonderai Chavanga, while Frans Steyn added four penalties and two conversions for a personal of 16 points.
Early on, the Sharks moved into a 10-0 lead after a penalty by Steyn and a converted try from Marcell Coetzee after he crashed over from a lineout five metres out.
It was 13-3 after the sides swapped penalties, but just before the break the Highlanders struck twice in quick succession, with Fekitoa and Hames going over for tries. With Sopoaga’s successful conversion kicks they led 17-13 at half-time.
The New Zealanders’ advantage was stretched to seven points when Sopoaga added a penalty early in the second stanza.
Forward dominance rewarded
The Sharks’ forward dominance was then rewarded when they destroyed a Highlanders’ scrum and Bismarck du Plessis was on hand to pounce on the bouncing ball over the visitors’ tryline as it bobbled about. With Steyn adding the extras, the teams were level at 20-20.
Du Plessis was involved again when the Sharks moved the ball to the blind side on the left. His deft offload found Chavanga and the speedy winger outstripped the defence to dot down in the left hand corner. Steyn missed from out wide, but the men from Durban led 25-20.
It was a lead that didn’t last long, however, as All Black Ben Smith initiated a superb counter-attack, which was finished off by Phil Burleigh after a super short pass from Richard Buckman. Sopoaga’s conversion put the Highlanders 27-25 ahead.
The Sharks were not done and tightened things up, turning to their pack to increase the pressure on the Kiwis. It worked as they won a penalty in the 73rd minute, which Steyn knocked over for a one-point lead.
Another penalty in the final minute secured a 31-27 victory.
‘Some of our best rugby’
Coach Jake White praised his charges after the game, saying they played some of their best rugby of the season in the last 20 minutes of the contest. “It was some of our best rugby in terms of linking our forwards and backs,” he told the South African Press Association (Sapa).
During that time, he sent on flyhalf Patrick Lambie, who returned to the team after a long injury layoff, and his halfback partner Charl McLeod. “Frans [Steyn] himself said to me after the game, when they walked on, he just got a sense of calmness from both of them being around,” White shared.
‘A great lesson’
“Ideally you want a comfortable win, but when you get to this stage of the competition, it’s highly unlikely. It’s a great lesson for all the boys here to understand just how tough this knockout stage is.”
The Sharks and Crusaders meet in the Super Rugby semi-finals on Saturday in Christchurch at 9.35am South African time. The Waratahs host the Brumbies in the second semi-final at the Allianza Stadium in Sydney at 11.40am.