The Cell C Sharks’ surge towards the Vodacom Super Rugby knock-outs suffered an unfortunate setback, when an injury time drop goal from Stormers fullback Jaco Taute consigned them to an agonising 19-21 defeat at Kings Park on Saturday.
Having done the hard yards on tour – amassing an impressive tally of 13 log points while winning three of the four fixtures played – the Sharks now look set to be knocked right back into the chasing pack once Super Rugby resumes later this month, due to a second successive home defeat. Their lead at the top of the table has now been whittled down to just 2 points over the Waratahs (and 4 over the Crusaders), both of whom have a game in hand and will play again before the Sharks next see action.
It was not a vintage performance by either side during Saturday’s gritty derby – in fact, it was just the sort of game that must surely raise the clamour for fewer of these dull grudge-fests, rather than more. With no shortage of niggle and the customary vagueness to referee Jaco Peyper’s interpretations, one felt that playing enterprising rugby was not really high on the agenda for either side. Penalties dominated the first half, as Frans Steyn and Kurt Coleman traded blows, finally settling for three apiece in a 9-all stalemate, before Cobus Reinach appeared to have woken his side up, scoring a cracking try on the stroke of half time.
Reinach’s score – his third in three weeks – gave the Sharks a 7-point buffer at the break (they lead 16-9) and should have been the catalyst for the bonus-point win that they so badly needed to keep the chasing pack at bay. Alas, it appeared to have completely the opposite effect as the Sharks – clearly exhausted from their recent exploits – sensed that they had enough of a lead to defend and proceeded to do exactly that.
Another Coleman penalty shortly after the restart gave the visitors confidence and even though Steyn stretched the lead out again a few minutes alter, it was the Stormers who had their tails up. They were suddenly making yards off running kicks back at the tiring Sharks defenders, their scrums had started to improve after looking shaky early on and with the Sharks starting to fall foul of Peyper’s inane interpretations more and more frequently, they began to whittle away at the lead in earnest. Two penalties to substitute Demetri Catrikilis later and it was a 1-point game, with the Sharks holding a 19-18 advantage. Marcell Coetzee received his marching orders for repeated ruck infringements shortly before the second.
In what would have been a comedy of errors (had it only been funny) the Sharks blew multiple chances to close out the game in the final ten minutes. Frans Steyn missed two penalties, Tim Swiel failing to collect a rebound off the crossbar from the second of those which would have resulted in a game-clinching score had he managed to hold on. Most telilng, though, was Charl McLeod’s decision to kick an infield grubber off the last scrum of the game, within the Sharks’ half. With time already up, all McLeod needed to do was ensure the ball ended up dead, but instead he gifted possession to the Stormers, who had a kickable penalty coming their way even before Taute’s strike.
The Bulls’ failure to beat the Lions earlier in the day handed a maiden South African Conference title to the Sharks, who will qualify no worse than third even without winning either of their two remaining fixtures. There would have been few in a quiet changing room celebrating that achievement, though, as Saturday’s defeat to a patchwork Stormers outfit now leaves their home semi-final aspirations out of their own hands and hanging by no more than a thread.
Cell C Sharks (19): Try Cobus Reinach. Conversion Frans Steyn. Penalties Steyn (4).
DHL Stormers (21): Penalties Kurt Coleman (4), Demetri Catrikilis (2). Drop goal Jaco Taute.