Sharks’ trip to London was well worth the effort

2014-01-27 00:00

IF you can ignore, just for a moment, the injury to Springbok wing Lwazi Mvovo, then the Sharks’ trip to London to play Saracens in their pre-season friendly on Saturday was well worth the effort.

Saracens, at the top of their game, match fit, at home and the more cohesive outfit, were expected to overcome their rusty opponents. They built up a 20-3 lead at the break and, finally, held on against the improving Sharks for a 23-15 win. But they also needed some help from the referee.

The moral victory, if there really is such a thing in rugby, went to the Sharks, who created two excellent second-half tries, played most of the rugby, forced Saracens to make twice as many tackles and outscored their hosts 12-3 in the dramatically deteriorating weather after the break.

Saracens, in contrast, scored a highly questionable opening try and then one from an intercept. The debatable one came after referee Tim Wigglesworth had yellow-carded Sharks lock Etienne Oosthuizen for pulling down a maul. While he was trudging off, the medics gathered around an injured Saracens player close to the stoppage but this did not stop Charlie Hodgson tapping the penalty and sending wing David Strettle, unchallenged, over in the corner. Nice one.

Moments later Pieter-Steph du Toit was sin-binned for an innocuous clean-out and the Sharks played the next eight minutes with 13 men without conceding a point. The pair of locks returned but the Sharks immediately conceded an intercept try and Saracens had a 17-point advantage at the break.

Jake White as his assistants would have been delighted with several aspects of the Sharks’ play in the second half, but the head coach’s worst fears were realised when Mvovo was carried off with a neck injury.

Repeated attempts yesterday to ascertain the seriousness of the injury failed but Mvovo’s thumbs-up from the stretcher as he left the field suggest that he, at least, did not believe the injury was serious. The Sharks return from London early today when a medical update is expected.

The only other injury apparent from 10 000 km was to fullback Tyler Fisher (shoulder) and he left the field at half time.

The Sharks’ young star performer of the day was the formidable inside centre Andre Esterhuizen who has played most of his rugby at fullback. At 1.91 m and 104 kg, the 19-year-old is already being compared to Frans Steyn. He was a formidable presence in the midfield where he regularly broke tackles while he also possesses a prodigious left boot. It will come as no surprise to see him at fullback for the Sharks when Steyn returns from injury.

Most of Sharks’ attention was centred on U21 flyhalf Tim Swiel who was standing in for Pat Lambie. Swiel struggled initially, his kick-offs were too deep and he conceded the intercept try, but he showed some neat footwork and settled in the second half when the more urgent Charl McLeod replaced Cobus Reinach at scrumhalf.

White would also have been delighted by the way his two young locks, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Etienne Oosthuizen and replacement Stephan Lewies, performed against an all-England second-row, and their line-out work was excellent.

The scrum, in contrast, creaked ominously but White said he was not surprised and chalked it up to rustiness and the fact that the strong Saracens pack had been scrumming together all season.

The pick of the forwards was flank Jean Deysel, who frequently bashed his way through Saracens’ ranks, highlighting the power of the Sharks pack when they have ball in hand.

The outing was a tough introduction to the season but the Sharks should reap the benefits in the weeks ahead. They face the Lions in a final warm-up game at Ellis Park on February 7 and open their Super Rugby campaign against the Bulls at King’s Park on February 15.

Saracens were ecstatic with their win and the Sharks were happy with their second–half revival in front of the South African-dominated crowd of 10 000.

It was only the injury to Mvovo, some curious refereeing calls and the atrocious second-half weather which dulled the occasion.

SCORES

Saracens 23: Tries: David Strettle, Charlie Hodgson. Conversions: Hodgson (2).Penalties: Hodgson (3). Sharks 15: Tries: Andre Esterhuizen, Heimar Williams. Conversion: Tim Swiel. Penalty: Swiel.

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