So close, yet so far for Sharks

2009-05-20 00:00

IT was the most scintillating and stirring of rugby matches, a fluctuating, fiercely-contested classic played to a full house, but ultimately it served only to add to the frustration of the Sharks supporters as a campaign so rich in promise failed dismally to bring reward.

The Sharks, in front of a King’s Park crowd of 48 000, made every effort to resurrect their title hopes as they chased victory and four tries against the Bulls.

They failed by a tantalisingly narrow margin, scoring the four tries, but losing by a point (27-26) to end sixth while the Bulls climbed to the top and will have a home semi-final against the Crusaders on Saturday. The Chiefs host the Hurricanes in the all-New Zealand semi-final in Hamilton.

The Sharks’ painful slide to the middle of the log has taken just over a month, picking up just eight points from five games, four at King’s Park, their early excellent away form undone by late failures at home.

But when it was all but too late, they suddenly produced the intensity, urgency and committed, ball-in-the-hand attack glaringly missing in recent weeks.

“That was an awesome game,” said Bulls captain Victor Matfield. “The Sharks came out with a mission to score tries and showed just what qualities they have. Credit to our side for showing the character to keep them out, but it was very tough.”

Sharks head coach John Plumtree described the game as “a great advert for South African rugby”.

“It was an outstanding encounter between two very good teams. There was just one point in it at the end and it could have gone the other way, but that just about sums up what has been a frustrating final month for us.”

Plumtree said that for the past month he has been trying to encourage the Sharks to play with the positive intent evident in this game.

“I’m just proud of the boys and how they responded to adversity on this occasion, but bonus points are crucial in this competition and they have to be more positive in their intent. There was a lesson for the boys there which we can take forward.”

The contest provided a vivid contrast in styles, with the Sharks playing a high-tempo, running game and the Bulls slowing the action and kicking for position.

“We knew what the Sharks’ intentions would be,” said Bulls coach Frans Ludeke. “We wanted to be accurate and play the game in the right areas. But it needed a massive defensive effort.”

Matfield said he had made it clear to his players that victory over the Sharks is imperative if they want to repeat their 2007 triumph.

“I told them we would not win the title this year if we had to travel to New Zealand to play the semi-final and final. We are delighted that we will be back at our home at Loftus.”

It was a night of wholehearted rugby by both teams. Sharks fullback Stefan Terblanche, brave under the high ball, secure in his tackling and prominent on attack, put the previous week’s disaster against the Waratahs behind him and provided Bok coach Peter de Villiers with another nudge.

Wing JP Pietersen was another who kept threatening while the Sharks forwards, because of the attacking approach, were prominent in the many sweeping moves.

In composed scrumhalf Fourie du Preez and flyhalf Morne Steyn, the Bulls had the perfect halfbacks for the game they wanted to play and the pair kept their pack going forward when it mattered most.

Plumtree said the Bulls had succeeded with negative play at the breakdown where they kept flopping over the ball.

“I suppose they had to do that because we were playing all the rugby.”

Plumtree said that the circumstances of the match made it difficult for his players. “Had we just needed the four points [for a winï, we might have taken the game, but we had to turn down the penalties and run at every chance to get the four tries.

“To be honest, I think we gave the Bulls a bit if a rugby lesson but in doing so we probably also ran ourselves off the park . At least we had a go,” said the Sharks coach.

The uninhibited display may have been encouraging and entertaining, but it also highlighted what could, and should, have been achieved by the talents of their team in the 2009 Super 14.

 

Super 14 round-up: page 19

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