Rampant Sharks on road again

2012-07-30 00:00

COACH John Plumtree’s tactical plan, vigorously implemented by his single-minded group of players, carried the much-travelled Sharks to an emotional and remarkable Super Rugby 26-19 semi-final win over the table-topping Stormers at Newlands on Saturday evening.

The cheers for the Sharks’ thoroughly deserved victory would have been as loud in far-off Hamilton as they were in Durban. The Chiefs, waiting back in Waikato for the result, and following their own upset win over the seven-time champion Crusaders on Friday, had bags packed and were ready to make the long haul to Cape Town for the widely predicted final against the Stormers.

But the Sharks were reading from a different script and the Chiefs are now sitting back, feet up and waiting for the Sharks to come to them for Saturday’s final (9.35 am SA time).

While the Sharks benefited from Plumtree’ astute planning and the tactical tinkering in selection, the predictable Stormers — for the first time at Newlands this season — were found wanting, in a way the victims of their own success and the style of rugby they have played in topping the log.

Plumtree, determined to counter the Stormers’ territory-based kicking game, selected bravely (and secretly), rejigging his backline to include the big boot of Riaan Viljoen at fullback.

It was an ambitious move, involving three positional switches — Louis Ludik from 15 to wing, the sublime JP Pietersen to outside centre and Tim Whitehead from 13 to 12, in place of Meyer Bosman, who dropped to the bench.

It worked a treat. Viljoen took charge of all the re-starts and most of the deep kicks out of hand, while it was his perfectly weighted up-and-under that was snatched out of the air by the leaping Ludik for the Sharks’ first try.

Pietersen, closer to the action at centre, also played his part, running in the Sharks’ second try and disrupting the Stormers with his powerful defence. Fittingly, it was his strong rucking after the final hooter that allowed Keegan Daniel to turn over possession and end the game.

The Stormers, in contrast, were playing between two tactical stools. Flyhalf Peter Grant was strangely hesitant, at times appearing uncertain whether to run, pass or kick the ball. The Stormers, outgunned by the superior Sharks pack, did not have the territory for Grant to play his usual role of match-winning goalkicker.

It was only when the Stormers were chasing the game in the last quarter that they turned to the talents of their Springboks in the backline. Wing Gio Apolon did score a try after a sustained attack, but the expansive approach came too late to save the game.

While Grant was struggling, Freddie Michalak was calmly pulling the strings for the Sharks. His succeeded with all four kicks at goal (two conversions and four penalties), added two drops and, switching from left to right and left again, outmanoeuvred the Stormers’ defence to leave Pietersen with lumbering forwards to beat on his way to the tryline.

Grant kicked two first-half penalties, but the Sharks led 13-6 at the break after Ludik’s excellent try and Michalak’s conversion, penalty and a drop.

Michalak and Grant traded penalties, but Pietersen’s try took the Sharks into a 14-point lead (23-9) entering the final quarter.

With the jet-lagged Sharks tiring, the Stormers fashioned a try for Aplon and, when Grant added the conversion and a penalty, the lead was just four points (23-19) with eight minutes remaining.

The Sharks’ replacements made an immediate impact and a strong Sharks attack set up Michalak for a second drop (26-19).

The Stormers attacked desperately in the closing moments, hoping to force the game into extra time, but the Sharks defence closed them down to seal the win.

The Sharks’ victory was based on a superb team effort. With Ryan Kankowski playing a leading role, the Sharks’ lineout excelled and only one overcooked throw from Bismarck du Plessis went astray. The scrum, to the delight of the Beast, and the backrow held sway while Marcell Coetzee, Anton Bresler and Keegan Daniel excelled in the Sharks’ strong defensive effort.

The deep disappointment felt by captain Jean de Villiers and coach Allister Coetzee was palpable, but they were generous in their praise of the Sharks. “The Sharks are on a real roll, on a mission,” said De Villiers. “As I said during the week, if there’s a team you won’t bet against now, it’s them.

“It will be a fantastic victory for them if they can go on and win it. They’ve shown that they can overcome the travelling.

“It’s going to be tough to do it but the whole of South Africa should get behind them. They’ve got a great chance.”

Coetzee said that the Sharks had deserved their victory.

“They put us under real pressure, particularly in the first half and we wish them well in the final.”

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