Looking back at the Sharks’ 32-28 victory over the Lions on Saturday night, I can’t help borrowing a line from enigmatic seventies folk hero Sixto Rodriguez: “It started out so nice…”Despite a reasonably jittery opening, the visitors found, just as eight other teams have this season, that if you apply lots of pressure to the Lions defensive line, it completely disintegrates. With Jean Deysel and Willem Alberts in tandem, alternately knocking the stuffing out of the Lions ball carriers and crossing the advantage line at will, Ruan Pienaar had a plentiful supply of quick ball for the backs and although those outside the lanky halfback still didn’t look particular sharp on the day, they didn’t really have to do much other than regulation catch-draw-and-pass to score the first two tries. Bismarck du Plessis interacted nicely with John Smit to score the third and with scarcely 25 minutes played, the Sharks were well on their way to a bonus point and firmly in control.
But nothing ever goes that smoothly for the Sharks and here it was no exception. Something changed, however slight, in the way they approached the game. A little bit of arrogance started to creep in, perhaps neglect of the basics; a loose pass here, an overcooked punt there. The aggressive rush defence, so key to the early dominance, was also no longer there and with Carlos Spencer sensing the change, the Lions stepped up a gear. The Sharks have shown on numerous occasions this year that they are incredibly vulnerable to the flat pass and within a horror 5-minute spell, the Lions had used this simple trick twice and were suddenly within a point of the Sharks.
A Ruan Pienaar penalty on the stroke of half-time ultimately proved decisive, though, as a thoroughly entertaining, yet ultimately deadlocked second half resulted in ten extra points for each side, but no change to the half-time margin. The Lions, to their credit, tackled manfully and their defence improved along with the self-belief that came from staying in the game for so long. Even after the Sharks scored what should have been the match-clincher – a pearler of a try that saw Jacques Botes dot down after strong work from both Deysel and Alberts – the Lions held on and then came back, scoring a superb long-range effort of their own and holding the Sharks out on a number of other occasions.
For the Sharks, some pretty woeful decision-making and poor execution made their lives far more difficult than they should have been. This team needs to learn how to be ruthless and while scoring the bonus point was in itself an important step, we should not overlook the fact that the Lions came bloody close – far, far too close – to winning the game themselves. Bonus points mean nothing if you lose.
Apart from the loosies, the rest of the pack did pretty well, although they’ll be disappointed about how well the Lions managed to counter the rolling maul. Lineouts were also a shambles until Al Hargreaves got onto the park. Pienaar and Lambie were again the pick of the backs, with Stefan Terblanche and JP Pietersen turning in pretty shocking performances that they’ll want to forget. Congratulations must go to winger Lwazi Mvovo, who finally earned his first Super 14 cap when he replaced Pietersen late in the second half.
Spare a thought, if you will, for poor bloody Craig Burden, whose sole contribution was the five minutes he spent on the flank while Alberts was in the blood-bin. He’s a superb player, is Burds and he’s being wasted on the bench – surely his development at hooker would benefit far more from Vodacom Cup gametime at this stage?
All things aside, though, it was yet another much-needed win for the Sharks and one feels that earlier in the season, they wouldn’t have found a way to close this one out the way they did. The team has now won four in a row and although the elusive semi-final dream is still theoretically alive, it’s going to take a vastly-improved performance to repeat the bonus-point victory feat against the Blues this weekend.Tweet