Rugby gods and officials smile at last on struggling Sharks

2010-03-22 00:00

THIS time the rugby gods, and the match officials, smiled benignly on the Sharks as they broke their Super 14 duck against a willing but untidy Highlanders outfit in Dunedin on Saturday.

A strong second-half revival by the Sharks carried them home to a 30-16 win, but they needed a superb try-saving tackle by Ryan Kankowski on the corner flag in the 76th minute and a late intercept try by Adi Jacobs to ensure the win and avoid another grandstand defeat.

There were also two close video calls — the first rewarded Bismarck du Plessis’ wholehearted effort with a try and the second denied replacement Highlanders wing Fetu’u Vainikolo’s efforts in the corner, which this time, by way of a change, fell in the Sharks’ favour.

The win was greeted with enormous relief rather than unbridled joy, and it will have lifted the Sharks and all who follow them. The Sharks, with their fourth successive win at the House of Pain, are hoping that the positive result is a turning point, but they will still have to improve dramatically if they are not to be one-hit wonders.

They scrummed well enough, with John Smit, who took the field in place of an ill Beast Mtawarira on the loosehead, looking more comfortable there than on the tighthead. He has now played in every position in the front-row this season, but it was his obvious relief of a win rather than his versatility which was occupying his mind after the game.

“Carisbrook has become a special place for us over the years, but none of the past victories has meant as much as this one,” he said. “We needed this win, but we now need to capitalise on it and really make it count. We were determined to turn this season around and we have to keep it going.”

While the scrum was reasonably secure, their lineout went missing for the first time this season with hooker Bismarck du Plessis missing his jumpers on a half-dozen occasions and allowing the Highlanders to wriggle free. The Sharks were also again guilty of booting away possession or losing it in contact and at the breakdown or taking the wrong attacking option.

Centre Adi Jacobs, better than anyone, summed up the lack of confidence, cohesion and rugby nous in the side in the last move of the game. The game had been won — the Sharks led by 14 points after Jacobs had scored an intercept try with two minutes left on the clock — but they were desperately seeking a fourth try for a bonus point when the chunky centre attempted a wild drop kick. Go figure.

Still, we should not carp. This was a win on New Zealand soil after five losses and that should be celebrated.

The composed 19-year-old Pat Lambie, making his debut at fullback, was secure under the high ball and showed several excellent touches, and Ruan Pienaar, first at scrumhalf and then at flyhalf in the second half, is growing in confidence. He also slotted all his kicks (three conversions and three penalties) while the Highlanders missed three attempts at goal.

English flyhalf Andy Goode, who took the field after twisting an ankle in the warm-up and struggled in the Sharks’ shaky first half, was benched early in the second and his days as a Shark now appear numbered.

Bismarck du Plessis, if you can ignore his lineout throwing and continued reluctance to exploit an overlap by passing, had an impressive and productive day, charging into the opposition ranks with gay abandon and winning possession at the breakdowns.

Sharks head coach John Plumtree, though mightily relieved, realises that one win does not a season make.

“I wouldn’t want to say that that was the turning point in the season,” Plumtree said.“We are way down the log, but the win will give us some confidence.

“It’s a good boost for the players. We’re overseas for five weeks and home feels like a long way away so we needed this.”

The Sharks coach said he is delighted that the Sharks had finally won a close game.

“It’s nice to hear a winning speech in the dressing-room for a change. We played some pretty good rugby in the second half after being under the cosh a little bit in the first.

“I hope we can go on now and do the job again in Wellington next Saturday,” he added.

See page 18 for Super 14 round-up.

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