The home team found themselves desperately defending the slimmest of leads at the end, but just managed to hold on for a 17-10 victory against the Western Force in Durban on Friday night.
It was a game that both teams would probably rather forget; the Force more so, since they emerged three points worse off than the Sharks did. The humid conditions, as well as a fair amount of early season nerves and rustiness pretty much killed the game as a spectacle, as last-pass fumbles outnumbered tries by a factor of four to one. The Sharks outscored the visitors by two tries, one each to Jacques Botes and Stefan Terblanche, to a solitary touchdown by Force reserve hooker, Luke Holmes.
The Sharks started the game far stronger than their Antipodean opponents did and it was clear from the outset that their tight five had the upper hand. The Sharks fatties dominated in the scrums and were prominent on the drive, with Bismarck du Plessis and Beast Mtawarira putting in some great work, and big hits, all over the park. Skipper Johann Muller caused a torrid time for a Force lineout that had been cruelly hamstrung by the withdrawal of talisman Nathan Sharp on the eve of the match.
The tactic seemed a simple one. Secure the ball and then let either Ruan Pienaar or Frans Steyn hoof it down deep into Force territory. The tactic worked well at first, with pressure on the visiting back three, particularly the woefully one-footed Drew Mitchell, yielding dividends. The home team was guilty of a number of lapses, though, which rendered this tactic less effective. The loose forwards were outshone at the breakdown, resulting in slow ball that hampered the line’s progress. Further, wrong option taking, coupled with some woeful handling out wide, saw much of the promising work undone as they failed to capitalise on a nightmare start for the Force back three. Mentz and Terblanche between them must have botched three clear tries in the first half alone, through failing to hold on to regulation passes.
Indiscipline at the breakdown cost the Sharks further, with du Plessis, Botes and Ryan Kankowski all guilty of halting the Sharks’ momentum by conceding needless penalties. Credit must go to the impressive Force loose trio of Pockock, Fava and Brown, who never let the home team have their own way at the breakdown. Cameron Shepherd opened the scoring for visitors with a long-range penalty after one such indiscretion.
The Sharks managed to play to their strengths not long afterwards, though, for the only try of the opening period. That score came after Botes peeled off the back of a rolling maul that at its peak contained at least 12 members of the Sharks team. A devastating tactic, when it works and in this particular case, the men in black gained forty metres at least through effective use of their forward supremacy. It was a tactic that was tried again, yet never came off and far too easily did they revert to aimlessly kicking bad ball back into the hands of the eager Force backline, or knocking on what good possession came their way.
The second half saw the Force play with far more composure and they were unlucky not to make more of a number of promising line-breaks. Certainly, man-for-man, their outside backs seem to have the number of their Sharks counterparts in terms of pace and guile. The Sharks, however, always contrived, somehow to get a man back in position to make the final tackle. Albert van den Berg (in his 87th Super Rugby appearance) and Mtawarira pulled off a pair of beauties. It was the home side, however, that put together a beautiful passage of play that resulted in Terblanche’s score in the 51st minute. Some deft hands from Pienaar, Botes and in particular Brad Barritt, who kept the ball alive with a beautiful little tap on, saw the fullback, who was a late addition to the team after Fred Michalak’s withdrawal, hit the line at pace and slice right through, with two men free on his outside. Pienaar’s second successful conversion took the score out to 14-3, a pretty commanding lead with half an hour on the clock and the Sharks’ tails up.
They once again failed to take the game away, though and it was the Force who hit back strongly, eventually scoring a try of their own with 15 minutes left to play. It was a pretty freakish incident – a Kockott up-and-under was well chased down by Kankowski, only for the pill to bounce backwards off his head and into the arms of the waiting Scott Staniforth. The Force centre was already clear of the Sharks defenders and spun the ball quickly through two pairs of hands to find the new man Holmes under the sticks. Giteau’s conversion meant a four-point ball-game and a nervous last quarter of an hour for the Sharks.
A Frans Steyn monster penalty, from 60 meters out, gave a bit more breathing room though and the home side held on for a win that, on the balance of probability, they deserved more than the visitors did. One feels that if they had played to their strengths and not kicked so much ball down the throats of opposition, they may well have given themselves far less work to do at the end.
Four points for the Sharks and a lot of work to do before the Stormers come to town. Another team with a good loose trio who thrive off turnover ball; the Sharks would do well to keep structure to their game. The Force head to Bloemfontein knowing that they can only play better than they did in Durban. They’re a team that could either win comfortably or get soundly thrashed, depending entirely on how cleverly the Cheetahs approach the game.
Sharks (17): Tries by Botes and Mentz. Two conversions by Pienaar and a (HUGE) penalty by Steyn.
Force (10): Try by Luke Holmes. Conversion by Giteau and a penalty by Shepherd.
Man of the Match: Sharks loose head prop, Tendai Mtawarira.