The Sharks emerged victorious in their Vodacom Super 14 match against the Highlanders at The Absa Stadium Durban on Saturday afternoon, but were made to fight for every point.
They went into today’s game in seventh position on the log with 31 points but with teams second to eight within two points of each other, the log was hugely congested and the tournament remains poised on a knife’s edge.
Sharksrugby.co.za reports that with two matches of the weekend still to play, the 23-18 victory took The Sharks from seventh to second spot on the log but they will know two more tough pool games stand between them and a semifinal place in three weeks time.
Having returned from their bye, the difference in energy levels was immediately apparent with The Sharks in menacing mood right from the start. Big ball carriers in Ryan Kankowski, Riaan Swanepoel, Bismarck du Plessis and Jean Deysel – back to his bullocking best – were in belligerent mood, forcing the visiting Highlanders into making umpteen tackles and often failing to stop the opposition player with the first hit.
It was clear that The Sharks were attaching great importance to the game and certainly arrived at the park in confrontational mood, not willing to take a step back, evidenced supremely in their scrumming prowess which constantly pressurised the Highlanders at the setpiece and earning them more than a handful of turnovers.
The Sharks enjoyed the majority of ball possession, but if there had to be a downside, it was the number of opportunities lost on attack which would have been frustrating after all the excellent foundation work to get them into try-scoring positions in the first place.
After half an hour the Highlanders looked dead on their feet, players hanging their heads in fatigue and slow to get up from the collisions, but testament to their character was their never-say-die attitude and when they attacked, they did so in earnest.
They might have had the last word in the first half with a try to Jimmy Cowan to even the try-scoring tally at two apiece, but the conversion failed and The Sharks took a slender 17-15 lead into the break looking dangerous despite the narrow deficit on the scoreboard.
Points did not come easy in the second half with three penalties the only time the scoreboard was troubled, but two of those went to The Sharks and they had done enough to hold out the visitors in a tightly-contested half with the spoils just about evenly-shared.
In the end, The Sharks had done enough to win against a side who have beaten the Crusaders and Bulls this season and deserve plenty of respect.
Highlanders captain Jimmy Cowan paid tribute to The Sharks, saying, “They attacked well in the early part of the game but our boys bounced back, missed out on some points, and credit to The Sharks for their win. Overall though, we’re disappointed to come away with no points.”
Sharks captain Johann Muller admitted that, “After a good break which we needed, we’re happy with four points but a bit disappointed with way we played. We created a lot of opportunities but our finishing went out the window and we need to hold on to the ball a bit more. It was a really good effort from our pack, and if you have want to win the tournament, you have to dominate the scrum and I thought we did that.”
Ryan Kankowski, Vodacom Man of The Match explained that, “It was very tough, we knew the Highlanders have a strong pack, but we were ready for them, it was a tough battle though. Our tight forwards worked really hard today and made it easier for me. When the tight five do the job and set the foundation, the loosies can dominate and I think we did.”
The Sharks: 23 (17)
Tries: Steven Sykes, Jacques Botes
Conversions: Rory Kockott (2)
Penalties: Rory Kockott (3)
Highlanders: 18 (15)
Tries: Jason Rutledge, Jimmy Cowan
Conversions: Mathew Berquist (1)
Penalties: Mathew Berquist (2)