Replacement Monde Hadebe dropped over the line for his team’s fourth try three minutes from time to secure the Cell C Sharks a full house of log points from their 34-17 win over the Steval Pumas in their second Absa Currie Cup match of the season at Growthpoint Kings Park on Friday night.
If that scoreline makes it look like a one-sided game, think again. It was nip and tuck until well beyond the hour mark, and the Sharks laboured long and hard with a surfeit of possession before finally breaking down the obstinate Pumas defensive system with a sequence of driving-maul tries in the second half.
Indeed, at the halfway point it was the visitors who led 7-6 after an uninspiring opening 40 minutes that produced a lot of dire rugby and not much congruity on attack from a Sharks team that tried hard to keep ball in hand but just couldn’t inject the required energy and continuity into their game.
The Pumas had enjoyed a dream start, driving the ball up into Sharks territory from where they peeled off an attacking lineout to secure a driving-maul try to lock Frikkie Spies in just the fourth minute of play.
The Sharks fought back through two penalties from flyhalf Fred Zeilinga, one of them from the halfway mark, but they just struggled to make any headway.
The halftime statistics reflected a big Sharks advantage in both territory and possession, with the Sharks making 28 tackles against the 57 of their opponents.
However it was the Pumas who ended the half on the attack, with Sharks fullback JP Marais, who turned in a strong performance, dropping back to secure the mark near his own tryline under pressure off the last play of the first period.
The sloppy first-half performance must have attracted sharp words from Sharks coach Brad Macleod-Henderson in the halftime huddle, for the hosts came out for the second half with renewed energy.
Their greater sense of purpose brought immediate dividends as the forwards surged up the middle of the field from the kick-off before the Sharks used the short side from a recycle to great effect as Marais was put in for the try.
The 42nd-minute try was the first time in the game that the Sharks went into the lead, but any immediate hopes of them taking control were dispelled when lock Marco Wentzel was yellow carded after an infringement that followed a team warning, with the Pumas taking full advantage of their advantage in numbers.
JC Roos had cut the deficit to three points with a penalty from almost in front, so when an impressive bullocking run down the right touchline from Pumas’ Nambian international loose-forward Renaldo Bothma saw a try awarded in the corner, the Pumas were back in the lead at 17-13.
The Pumas had momentum at that point and could have made it very difficult for the Sharks had they scored the extra points that they were threatening at that stage.
Jacques Botes was magnificent though in scavenging for ball on the ground and generally inspiring his teammates, and it was fitting that the most capped Currie Cup player of all time was the man to dot down as the Sharks surged over the line from an attacking lineout in the 58th minute.
Patrick Lambie had just come onto the field and his first touch was the conversion, which he slotted from the angle to make it 20-17 and the Sharks were never headed again in the match.
Skipper Tera Mtembu drew the Sharks further into the lead when he profited from a ruse by the Pumas to net a penalty as they stepped away when the Sharks threw in at a lineout near their tryline.
Earlier, the Sharks had been penalised when they drove the ball with no Pumas players engaged in the maul, but this time the Pumas never got away with it and referee Christie du Preez awarded the try that, with 11 minutes to go, gave the Sharks a sniff at a bonus point that had seemed highly unlikely at halftime.
Cell C Sharks – Tries: SP Marais, Jacques Botes, Tera Mtembu and Monde Hadebe; Conversions: Fred Zeiling and Patrick Lambie 3; Penalties: Fred Zeilinga 2.
Steval Pumas – Tries: Frikkie Spies and Renaldo Bothma; Conversions: Justin van Staden and JC Roos; Penalty: JC Roos.