The Sharks suffered their first Champions Cup defeat 39-29
at the hands of Harlequins in London on Saturday.
The match served as much entertainment as there was stardust sprinkled all over the field.
With players such as Eben Etzebeth, Jaden Hendrikse and Siya Kolisi on one side; Marcus Smith, Andre Esterhuizen and Joe Marler on the other side, the game had a distinct England versus Springboks at Twickenham feel to it.
RECAP | Harlequins v Sharks
This is what the Champions Cup promised South African and European audiences. The SA fans, though, are yet to fully grasp the magnitude of playing at the highest level below Test internationals.
The wonderful thing for the spectators was that, even though the Sharks had already secured their round of 16 place, they fielded a full-strength team at Twickenham Stoop.
The Sharks opened the scoring in the second minute in sensational fashion. Aphelele Fassi chipped through after joining the line from fullback, and Thaakir Abrahams gathered and fed Lukhanyo Am on his inside, who had nothing but London land in front of him.
But it took the hosts less than five minutes to respond when they put together a brilliant multiphase move that resulted in a Danny Care dummy, dart and dot-down.
That put a spring in the Harlequins step as they hit the Sharks where it hurts again, through No 8 Alex Dombrandt. 'Quins’ incisive passing in midfield bamboozled the Sharks defence, which they scrambled to create delicious openings.
With 17 minutes gone, the game saw a fourth try, and a third for Harlequins when they mauled the Sharks before Caden Murley scored down the right.
The Sharks’ rush defence was being picked badly apart by the expert passing, led by England flyhalf Smith.
Wing Marnus Potgieter stopped the Sharks decline with a line-break of his own that created a 27th-minute opportunity from halfway that didn’t appear to be there at first.
But once he offloaded to Hendrikse, it was a matter of the scrumhalf outpacing Esterhuizen to the line to score the Sharks’ second try.
That’s what the Sharks needed to swing momentum back their way and Etzebeth pounced on Care’s lack of care for the breakdown rules when the Bok lock went around the Harlequins scrum and poached the ball, which was deemed out by the referee.
Etzebeth ran alone to score at a canter to leave the score at a delicate 24-22 to the home side at the break.
Things were transposed at the start of the second period as Harlequins started the stronger and scored after two minutes. Former Sharks lock Stephan Lewies broke from a 10m lineout and scored against the team where he learnt his rugby.
Harlequins fullback Nick David, a nuisance in open play all afternoon, counter-attacked devastatingly when he toed through to himself and completed a sensational solo try that started in his own backfield.
That restored the Harlequins 14-point daylight they enjoyed in the first half but only 53 minutes had lapsed. The Sharks would either mount a comeback or capitulate.
The Sharks huffed and puffed in search of a comeback score and thought they got a whiff of something positive when Potgieter scored in the corner with five minutes left. But the try was disallowed for an infringement in the build-up.
Fassi got the try the Sharks were desperate for but, with less than three minutes left on the clock, the ‘Quins, aided by stoic breakdown work, did enough for nearly 30 minutes to protect their lead and seal the precious victory.
Harlequins 39 (24)
Tries: Danny Care, Alex Dombrandt, Caden Murley, Stephan Lewies
Conversions: Marcus Smith (3)
Penalties: Marcus Smith (2)
Sharks 29 (22)
Tries: Lukhanyo Am, Jaden Hendrikse, Eben Etzebeth, Aphelele Fassi
Conversions: Curwin Bosch (2), Lionel Cronje
Penalty: Curwin Bosch