Smart rugby clinches it for tenacious Sharks

2008-03-09 00:00

A HEALTHY mix of courage and pace on the field, and astute planning off it: that was the story of the Sharks’ remarkable 22-17 win over the Auckland Blues, the Super 14 pacesetters, in sultry conditions at King’s Park on Saturday night.

When the Sharks, now one of only two unbeaten sides in the competition, tottered off to bed on Saturday night, they were the new Super 14 log-leaders, but the Crusaders overtook them early yesterday morning with their narrow win over the Western Force in Perth.

Sharks coach Dick Muir, forced by injury and the retirement of Johan Ackermann to pick a relatively light pack, turned to the speed of his forwards and aggressive defence to upset the Blues. And, in a frenetic contest, the plan worked perfectly.

The pace of his loose trio, the superb Keegan Daniel, Jacques Botes and Ryan Kankowksi, the niggling of scrumhalf Rory Kockott around the fringes and the rampaging, destructive play of hooker Bismarck du Plessis rattled the Blues throughout the first half.

It started from the kick-off as neither side controlled the ball and Daniel, fed by Du Plessis, ran 40 metres for the opening try within the first 20 seconds of the game. It might well have been the fastest try in Super rugby history, but it set the mood for the first 40 minutes.

The New Zealanders, pinned in their own half, kept trying to play extravagant rugby. But, caught on the hop, they were harried into a string of errors, with scrumhalf Danny Lee in particular suffering under the pressure. Half-a-dozen kicks were charged down by the swarming Sharks in the opening quarter.

The Sharks varied their play intelligently, mauling strongly, taking the ball wide on occasions and chipping into space as they kept the game in the faces of the shellshocked Blues.

“I was unhappy with the way we played in the first half,” said coach David Nucifora later. “We made far too many mistakes under pressure, but the Sharks are a difficult side to play and King’s Park is a difficult venue. It is disappointing to lose, but we have taken 11 log points out of Africa and we definitely would have settled for that at the start.”

If the Sharks dominated the first half, turning at 19-3 ahead, the Blues called the tune in the second, hogging possession and field position. With Australian referee Brett Bowden constantly blowing them for indiscretions at the tackle, the Sharks went for long periods without the ball but somehow kept their defensive lines.

“We leaked a soft try after just a few minutes in the second half,” said Muir, “and that knocked us back and changed our approach.

Muir, referring to the endless free kicks conceded by the Sharks at the breakdown, said the referee’s calls “were a bit of a lottery”.

“I’m just glad we were never yellow-carded, but it remains a concern.”

The Sharks heroes, led by a superb loose trio, were spread across the pitch. There were significant contributions from Stefan Terblanche, Brad Barritt, Frederic Michalak and Albert van den Berg in a pack which stood up to a massive physical challenge.

Frenchman Michalak, with peroxided hair — “He must have lost a bet,” said Muir — had a bruising but productive night. He did miss a tough tackle on replacement Taniela Moa six minutes from the final whistle, which provided the Blues with their second try — it cut the lead to 22-17 — but otherwise he had an excellent day on both attack and defence and no one in the 35 000 crowd would doubt his commitment to the cause.

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