Drop goal sinks Sharks

2009-10-19 00:00

THE Sharks, rich in experience and Springboks, but short of tactical nous, played dumb rugby when it mattered most to lose 23-21 to the Free State Cheetahs deep in injury time of their Currie Cup semi-final at King’s Park on Saturday.

The defeat cost them a lucrative home Currie Cup final and follows on a Super 14 campaign which also started with resounding cheers but ended in tears.

The second semi-final, in Cape Town, was also decided by a late kick as flyhalf Morne Steyn lifted Blue Bulls’ blushes with an excellent, angled penalty to end Western Province’s fairytale (21-19).

The Currie Cup will now return to the north with the Blue Bulls, third on the log, at home at Loftus to the fourth-placed Free Staters in the final on October 31.

The champion Sharks were less than a minute away from hosting another final when they coughed up another turnover on their line and Free State flyhalf Jacques-Louis Potgieter kicked the winning drop.

Sharks head coach John Plumtree, who never looks for a bush to beat around, was typically blunt when asked to explain away the defeat:

“Simple, really, we were beaten by the better team on the day, a team that seemed to want victory more, applied more pressure and were more committed. And that is what semi-final rugby is all about.”

The Sharks, had they been more ruthless and ambitious when they had their chances in the second half, would have nailed down a home final.

“If we had played anywhere near our potential we would have won,” said Plumtree, “but we lacked momentum, we never played our game and we failed to place the Cheetahs under pressure.”

The Sharks had the ascendancy in the final quarter when they led 21-20, but they remained intent on defending their lead by kicking away possession and they were unable to translate their field position into points.

Four attempts were made to kick drops at goal in excellent attacking positions. “That was just poor decision-making,” said Plumtree — and the ball was constantly booted back, inaccurately, to the Free Staters in those critical closing minutes.

The ball-in-hand approach, which had stretched the Cheetahs on occasions in the first half, would surely have brought greater reward.

“Our kicking game was poor, we missed tackles and we should have carried the ball more to build momentum,” said Plumtree as he reflected on the defeat.

“It’s been the story of our last few games.”

The Sharks had been under intense pressure in the scrum in the first half and Plumtree said he was not happy with the way referee Jonker had blown that area of the game.

“The referees just don’t know what is happening in the scrum where there are a lot of illegal things going on. The interpretations we are getting are different every week. We battled in the first half but sorted it out at half-time,” he added.

While it often appeared that Jonker was allowing the Free Staters to flop over the ball at the breakdown, and he certainly had the crowd on his back, Plumtree said he had no complaints.

“The Free Staters were more committed than us at the tackle and deserved their reward.”

Free State coach Naka Drotske said the season was proving the most memorable of his career as a coach and player. The Cheetahs were last on the log after four rounds and four defeats but have fought though to the final which Plumtree, for one, believes they can win.

“We have showed character in coming back in the Currie Cup and we showed character in coming back to win here. I have a special group of players,” Drotske said.

“I thought we played the correct rugby in the first half when we put their scrum under pressure and we had 60% — 70% possession and territory. Yet we trailed 15-3 and certainly the scoreboard was not an accurate reflection.

“But Jacques-Louis Potgieter’s intercept try midway through the second half came at just the right moment gave us the confidence to go on and win.”

Drotske agreed that the Sharks had erred in attempting to protect their one-point lead in the final quarter.

“It is difficult when you lead in a big game, and we have all been there, not wanting to take a risk. But the Sharks did go into defensive mode and stopped playing to their pattern and that let us in.”

Drotske dismissed the suggestion that the Sharks had choked

“No one can say that. They are still the current Currie cup champions and this game could not have been closer.

“There were also times when we were lucky and history has shown that anything can happen in these one-off semi-finals. That’s definitely not choking.”

At Newlands, a capacity, vocal crowd of almost 50 000 did their best to lift under-achieving Western Province to glory; at King’s Park, the Currie Cup champions and their big-name brand team played to just over 31 00 subdued Sharks specatators.

While the Free Staters deservedly celebrated their remarkable comeback win, the spark was missing for the Sharks...on and off the field.

See page 22 for Currie Cup wrap.

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