The Sharks lost their discipline and unbeaten Super 14 rugby record as the tenacious ACT Brumbies stormed home for a dramatic 27-21 victory on Saturday.
Last year’s beaten finalists looked set to stay unconquered after nine matches with a composed opening half to lead 18-7, but the Brumbies steamed home in the second term stringing together 20 unanswered points.
Foxsport reports that the Durban-based team grabbed a losing bonus point with replacement Ruan Pienaar’s 77th-minute penalty goal to trail tournament leaders the Crusaders by six points after the Crusaders’ shock 18-5 loss to the Chiefs on Friday.
The Sharks self-destructed through ill-discipline, with No.8 Ryan Kankowski and centre Francois Steyn leaving their team a man down with yellow cards at vital stages of the second half.
It was a breakdown in discipline which cost the leading South African title chasers dearly, as Australia outside back Adam Ashley-Cooper grabbed two tries and No.8 Julian Salvi another to lift the Brumbies to victory.
“In the second half our discipline was defective and we gave away too many penalties and free kicks and you can’t play with 14 men on the field,” fumed skipper Johann Muller.
It was a golden opportunity to press on for a home play-off next month for the Sharks, and they are now facing a crucial match with third-placed New South Wales in Sydney next Saturday.
The Sharks have not beaten the two-time champion Brumbies in 10 years in Canberra and it was the one that got away from them as they crumbled under the pressure exerted by the home side, missing Wallaby skipper Stirling Mortlock.
The Durban team looked impressive in the first half, displaying polished support play, to lead 13-0 after Kankowski’s 34th-minute try.
Ashley-Cooper pulled it back to 13-7 with a 40m intercept try off a wayward Steyn pass, but the precocious Springbok youngster made amends when he backed up a Kankowski line-break to score right on half-time.
The Brumbies, dominating territory and possession, put the Sharks under immense pressure in the second half, recycling the ball in multi-phases and getting their reward when Salvi plunged over after 19 phases while the Sharks were without the sin-binned Kankowski.
Mark Gerrard kicked the Brumbies to within a point, 18-17, midway through the half before Steyn was banished to the sin bin in the 67th minute, enabling Gerrard to kick the home side in front for the first time.
There was no way back for the Sharks when Ashley-Cooper finished off an overlap to score out wide in Steyn’s absence. Gerrard converted from the sideline to establish a nine-point lead.
The Sharks became more desperate to claw back the deficit and got a bonus point out of the wreckage with Pienaar’s penalty kick.
The gutsy victory revives the Brumbies’ play-off hopes, as they are now parked just outside the top four with another home match against the lowly Lions next Friday.
Fisher praised his players for a “fairly stunning performance” in the second half but downplayed suggestions that the announcement of his coaching had played any part in the second-half revival.
“They did it for themselves, it was an achievement for the whole group,” Fisher said.
“It was a courageous second-half for us. What we talked about at half-time was working en masse, not as individuals.”
Fisher said he had urged his players in the second half to take the game up to the Sharks, particularly at the breakdown.
“Rugby is a game of momentum and self-belief – our self-belief never wavered.”
The Brumbies have a difficult run to the semi-finals with a home game on Anzac Day against the Lions followed by a three-week trip to South Africa and Western Australia.
Sharks coach Dick Muir was scathing of his players’ second-half performance.
“It was stupid play on our behalf, we gave away too many penalties, we got under the referee’s skin and the game changed,” Muir said.
He said the team had known the Brumbies would be tough opponents and at half-time he had thought his players had performed well.
But the second half was completely different.
“Discipline cost us and there’s no excuse,” Muir said.
“But it’s not a train smash for us. We like to win and we know how to play.”Tweet