The Sharks maintained their unbeaten record in this year’s Super 14 competition with an entertaining 22-17 victory over the visiting Blues at Absa Stadium in Durban on Saturday night. The home side outscored the New Zealanders by three tries to two.
Sharks coach Dick Muir took a bit of a gamble going into the match, naming two smaller, quicker flankers in Keegan Daniel and Jacques Botes. In tandem with Ryan Kankowski, it would be about the paciest loose trio anywhere in the competition; on the down side, the Blues loose forwards had an average weight of 10kg more each and could potentially have run straight over the Sharks’ terriers.
The tactic paid of for Muir and his men, though, as the Sharks loose forwards ran riot in the first half. Daniel helped himself to a brace of tries, the first of these coming inside the first seconds of the game. Hooker Bismarck du Plessis, himself determined to have a big game after missing last week’s outing to Loftus, poached a loose ball from the kick off, barged one man and passed to the flying wing forward, who sprinted 40 metres to score.
Du Plessis in particular proved a constant thorn in the opposition’s flesh, as he operated together with the loose forwards to hassle the Blues behind the advantage line every time they got the ball. Numerous kicks were charged down; numerous passes were fumbled in the face of some relentless offensive tackling by the Sharks men. Pressure was converted into points twice more within the opening half hour: Johann Muller scored off a beautiful chip into space from inside centre Bradley Barritt, while Daniel tapped from a free kick five metres out to run in, unopposed, for his second.
Scrumhalf Rory Kockott succeeded with two of the three conversion attempts, leaving the Sharks with a 19 point to nil advantage with fifty minutes still to play. The Blues looked as though they didn’t understand what had hit them. For the first time this season, an opposition team had actually dared to tackle them. Furthermore, their loose forwards, the wrecking-ball trio of Kaino, Collins and Williams that had run riot in the opening three rounds, found themselves completely taken out of the game and unable to keep up.
David Nucifora’s men are not the sort to roll over and play dead, though and they did well to apply some pressure themselves and use the pick-and-go to good effect, thus sucking the Sharks defenders into their game. They converted a penalty just before half time and scored a good try just after to give themselves a sniff. Flyhalf Nick Evans ran a beautiful line after sending the Sharks defenders the wrong way with a good dummy. He sailed in under the posts, added the extras himself and brought his side back to 19-10.
Whereas the Sharks had dictated the pace and style of the game in the first half, the second forty was all about the New Zealanders. They dominated possession and territory and tested the Sharks defensive line again and again. Huge tackles were made; du Plessis, Beast Mtawarira, Botes and Daniel were ever-present on defence and the line held firm until 5 minutes from time, when the Blues scored their second try of the night through replacement scrumhalf Taniela Moa. Kockott had already succeeded with a penalty by this stage, meaning the successful Evan conversion only brought the visitors within five points.
As they had done so well for most of the half, the Sharks saw off the final few desperate forays by the visitors to take the spoils by 22 points to 17.
Keegan Daniel was voted man of the match for his performance and certainly he played very well, although the entire pack had a superb evening, none more so than Bismarck du Plessis. There were few chances for the men out wide but none was more impressive with the boot than Stefan Terblanche, clearing the line safely, again and again, from the right wing. Michalak was tested all night, but his defence stood firm and he put in a few of his trademark “scrambling monster hits” to save the day when all seemed lost.
The Blues will feel that this was, perhaps, a game too far for them on this tour. They also had not yet really been tested by any of the sides they’d played, so Nucifora will know that he has some work to do in teaching his team to play under pressure. Still, 11 points is not a bad haul from a three-match tour to South Africa and the Blues will be there or thereabouts at the end of the round robin stages – you can count on that!
As for the Sharks, well, they have set themselves up beautifully with this win. The Lions are up next and even though this is an away game, the hapless kittens didn’t even manage to bury a Bulls teams that had a man sent off half an hour into the game. Trouncing the woeful Reds a week later should see the Natalians depart for their Antipodean tour still unbeaten, with (hopefully) a credible haul of 27 points in the bag.
Sharks (22): Tries by Keegan Daniel (2) and Johann Muller. Rory Kockott kicked two conversions and a penalty.
Blues (17): Tries by Nick Evans and Taniela Moa. Evans kicked two conversions and a penalty.Tweet