If you were looking for a good advert of the strength and quality of South African rugby, a drenched Kings Park was not the place to be on Saturday as, almost predictably, it was two errors that enabled the Toyota Cheetahs to beat the Sharks 12-6 in a poor Vodacom Super Rugby match.
The first mistake came in the 28th minute when Cobus Reinach knocked the ball on as the Sharks attacked impressively. Cheetahs flanker Heinrich Brussow hoofed upfield, where the Sharks made another mistake as Paul Jordaan failed to pick the ball up, and Raymond Rhule came through to kick ahead and then win the race to the touch-down.
Okay, so that’s already two mistakes…well, in truth, there were a lot more than that, and from both sides, some of them that would have had a high school coach shaking his head in sheer frustration. But let’s concentrate on the mistakes that led to the Cheetahs winning this match. The second came late in the match, less than three minutes left to be precise, when Willie le Roux intercepted a pass from Pieter-Steph du Toit to run in from 35 metres.
Burton Francis missed the conversion and the Sharks nearly made him pay as they launched a late raid inspired by a Jordaan break that was eventually snuffed out just metres from the Cheetahs line. But effectively the intercept try clinched the game against a team that has now gone tryless in five of the eight games they have played this season.
It was a wet weather match, although most of the rain on the day fell before the game, and that is a part mitigating factor for the poor rugby produced. So is the inexperience in the Sharks side as the team continues to battle with injuries, some of the new players letting the side down by taking the wrong options at crucial stages.
But it can’t go the whole way to explaining the tactical naivety that blighted both teams in the first half, where the kicking games of both teams, an aspect that is so crucial in the wet, was nothing short of abysmal.
Patrick Lambie picked himself up and controlled the game much better after halftime, but the Cheetahs’ defence was solid against a home team that at times maybe tried to force it too much in their attempt to close up the seven-point gap that the Cheetahs had opened with the Rhule try. The Sharks did try to play all the rugby in the match, with the Cheetahs content to kick, and it might not have been wise in the conditions.
The Sharks flyhalf kicked two second-half penalties to draw the Cheetahs' lead back to just one point, and with Jean Deysel playing well after coming on as a replacement, the Sharks had enough go forward in the second half to threaten. There were a few occasions when they probed effectively through the middle from around the rucks, but their finishing this season has been poor and it was so again.
The Sharks started with a different team to the one that was advertised during the week. Instead of starting at lock, Pieter-Steph du Toit lined up at blindside flank, with Anton Bresler employed in the second row to bring the mongrel that was missing in Cape Town last week. Andries Coetzee, the Lions utility back, started the game instead of playing off the bench in a move that coach John Plumtree afterwards said was directed at the weather conditions.
However Coetzee was one of two unfortunate injuries that added to the Sharks’ woes ahead of their overseas tour, which starts when they leave from King Shaka International Airport for New Zealand on Sunday. Coetzee came off in the second half writhing in pain as he battled with what looked like a shoulder dislocation.
Perhaps the most concerning injury for the Sharks though was that to Beast Mtawarira. The Springbok loosehead, who has been in outstanding form this season, was helped from the field with what looked like a calf strain and it looks unlikely that he will leave with the Sharks on tour. Just what the Sharks will do about filling the gap at loosehead is difficult to say for there are no obvious candidates as Alan Dell, the man who was backing up, was apparently injured playing for the Sharks XV in a Vodacom Cup game earlier on Saturday.
“I hear Alan is out for a couple of weeks so we won’t be able to use him and Beast is looking bad too with that calf. He definitely won’t be on the plane with us when we leave,” said Plumtree.
“It was also disappointing to lose Andries as he was playing impressively. I am not sure how long he will be out for but a shoulder dislocation does usually require some time. We are going to have to have an emergency meeting straight after this press conference to find 26 fit players to take on tour. At the moment we don’t have that.”
Jannie du Plessis came on in Mtawarira’s place and initially packed down at loosehead, but that didn’t work, with the scrum under immediate pressure. In the second half Wiehahn Herbst moved to loosehead and the scrum was much more steady, but the Sharks are going to miss Mtawarira as they embark on their tough tour.
The Cheetahs all played their hearts out again, but Willie le Roux was their best player, putting in a great potentially match saving tackle near the Cheetahs line in the dying minutes in addition to scoring his try and also proving a constant thorn in the Sharks’ side with his little chip kicks.
“The thing about Willie is that he is not only a wing, he has also played a lot of rugby in other positions and he is very busy working on ways to probe for vulnerabilities in the opposition,” said Cheetahs captain Adriaan Strauss.
“He is a quality player and the type of player you need in a wet weather game like this. He knows how to play these conditions and he kept the Sharks guessing for 80 minutes.”
CHEETAHS 12 – Tries: Raymond Rhule and Willie le Roux; Conversion: Burton Francis.
SHARKS – Penalties: Patrick Lambie 2.