The Sharks scored twelve unanswered points in the second half to record a scrappy 12-10 win over the Vodacom Stormers in Durban on Saturday evening. Stormers scrumhalf Ricky Januarie scored the only try of the game in the 22nd minute.
The Stormers spoiled effectively in the first half, their loose trio in particular securing turnover ball at will against a Sharks outfit that appeared lethargic at the breakdowns and at times appeared woefully ignorant of exactly what would be tolerated under the experimental law variations. The home side enjoyed the lion’s share of the possession, yet for the second week in a row were often hassled off their own ball after two or three phases at play. Schalk Burger and Luke Watson hunted in tandem and put in a huge amount of work to ensure slow ball to the Sharks halfbacks.
French flyhalf Fred Michalak looked sharp on debut for the Sharks, with a number of elaborate flicks, stabs and kick-passes that did as much to confuse his team-mates as to bamboozle the opposition. One can’t fault him for trying, but it was pretty clear throughout that his personal skill level (as well as his ability to handle a slippery ball) is a notch or so above that of his teammates, particularly at this early stage of the season. Peter Grant, in contrast, endured a nightmare opening quarter and it was to the Sharks’ detriment that they failed to make anything of a surfeit of set piece opportunities courtesy of the flyahlf’s repeated fumbles and misdirected clearances.
Both teams tried hard to give the ball some width in the first half, with both JP Pietersen and Sireli Naqelevuki enjoying a few decent runs. The Sharks insistence on using a stab kick, rather than making the last pass was a pretty infuriating tactic, though. The Stormers opted rather to attempt the Wynand Olivier-inspired pass-to-the-touch-judge tactic on a number of occasions. All-in-all, a pretty mediocre showing, with the Sharks unable to score anything, despite 65% possession and a number of kickable penalty awarded. The Stormers turned ten points up, courtesy of some opportunistic play by hooker Liebenberg and Januarie, coupled with superior work at the contact points and resolute defence. Quite honestly, the Sharks looked dead and buried going into the shed at half time.
Rugby is a strange game, though and for whatever reason, the Stormers found that the tactic that had worked so well for them in the first half resulted in a whitewash in the second. The Sharks introduced some fresh legs and started to play with more purpose after the break. Suddenly the Stormers found themselves battling for parity at the breakdowns and furthermore, on the wrong side of Kelvin Deaker’s whistle, more often than not. We have become accustomed to the Schalk Burger brain-fart over the years and he did not disappoint in this game, undoing all his good work in the first half by being stupidly carded in the second for an off-the ball charge.
The fact that it was last week’s villain, Willie Roos, who pointed out Burger’s indiscretion did not help. The World Cup hero showed clear dissent to the assistant referee when stalking off the field, a movement repeated by his team-mate Brian Mujati a few minutes later. Both incidents were disgraceful and should result in further censure for the players concerned; more disastrous from a Stormers point of view was that they seemingly allowed their “Roos vendetta” to distract them from the task at hand, losing the match in the process. Roos is a poor ref, there is no doubt about that, but the Stormers need to realise that his bad calls against them are a result of ineptitude, rather than malice or bias. In this case, though, he got it spot on and Burger deserved to walk. Ruan Pienaar finally managed to put points on the board from the resulting penalty and it was pretty much all-Sharks from then on.
Pienaar himself departed the field with what looked like a serious shoulder injury, allowing eventual hero Rory Kockott to take over at scrumhalf. Kockott made an immediate impact, over and above the three further penalties he slotted to give the Sharks the win. Coupled with the Sharks pack coming into their own, Kockott played the traditional scrumhalf role to perfection, securing quick, clean possession for the men outside him, all the while cajoling Deaker and irritating his opposition with well-timed chirps. He’s a player for the big points, is Rocket and I don’t believe that his influence on this game can be overestimated. It was a quirk of Supersport’s “lottery system” that the man-of-the-match went to the frankly underwhelming Ryan Kankowski, when it quite clearly belonged to the 20-year-old in the number 20 shirt. “Rocket man burning out his fuse up here alone”, as Elton John would have put it.
The Stormers managed to get another bloke binned shortly after Burger’s return, with replacement centre Dylan des Fountain spending the last ten minutes of the game in the cooler after a number of persistent ruck infringements. Poor Jean de Villiers could do nothing but look on in dismay as Deaker blew penalty after penalty for the same kinds of mistakes that saw short-arms awarded when the Sharks committed a similar offence. Pretty inconcsistent, these ELV’s are, or at least, that seems to be the way the refs are interpreting. Still, 60% possession and a far stronger second-half display meant that, on the balance of probability, the right side probably got the points on the day. Kind of. Just.
Rassie will be an unhappy man, though. For the second week in a row, his charges were absolutely rampant in the first half, only to go scoreless in the second. Clearly he doesn’t have the depth on the bench that he needs to ensure the momentum is retained and although Mujati and Fondse might be tyros in the tight phases, their replacements, Harris, Skeate and the rest, clearly are not. The Stormers need to deliver a focused, committed performance throughout and will need to get over their petulance when decisions don’t go their way. It’s only going to get tougher for the Cape side, though, with the Crusaders in rampant form next up. Expect Burger to get a few weeks in the stands, following his temper tantrum. If he isn’t booked for that, then SARU clearly have no balls whatsoever.
As for the Sharks, well, shit chaps… You can’t play like that and expect to get anywhere near a semi-final. Not in this competition. Another get-out-of-jail performance and the only positive for the coaching staff this week was that the squad had enough depth and experience to pull a win out of the fire. That has got to be an encouraging sign. God knows, there weren’t too many others.
Stormers: A try by Ricky Januarie. A conversion and a penalty by Peter Grant.
Sharks: A penalty by Ruan Pienaar. Three further penalties by Rory Kockott.