The Sharks powered to the top of the Absa Currie Cup log with a compelling 50-26 win over the Toyota Free State Cheetahs at Growthpoint Kings Park in Durban on Saturday afternoon.
Keegan Daniel’s team scored seven tries to two in turning on possibly the most impressive performance produced by any side in the domestic competition so far in 2013, and in doing so sent out a loud warning to champions DHL Western Province that retaining the trophy is not going to be plain sailing.
Although they and the Cape side have the same number of log points, the Sharks are top at the moment on superior points differential.
The Sharks have given the impression that they have been steadily building confidence since their nightmare opening against Griquas back in August, and with the exception of the poor performance against WP in Cape Town, where they were comprehensively outplayed, they have systematically established the winning habit that provides the building block for success.
The Sharks’ strategy for most of the season has been a simple one – play the game in the opposition half and then attack with telling effect – and it was again to the fore against the Cheetahs, with the early territorial pressure that was applied enabling the hosts to take a big early lead.
Fred Zeilinga, who had another impressive allround game at flyhalf behind a dominant pack, ensured that the Sharks got into the Cheetahs’ half early on, and after three minutes, after a strong ball carry by the powerfully built hooker Kyle Cooper, it was fullback SP Marais over in the corner for the first Sharks try.
Riaan Smit drew three points back for the Cheetahs after 12 minutes, but the Sharks were spending most of the game in Cheetahs territory, and the visiting team’s tendency to have kicks charged down did not help their cause as the Sharks applied sustaining pressure. So it was no surprise when on the quarter hour mark Lwazi Mvovo went over after a strong Sharks scrum in the strike zone.
The one area where Zeilinga wasn’t good on the day was in his goalkicking, and he only converted three of the seven tries. However, when you are scoring tries as regularly as the Sharks were a few kicks missed aren’t so serious, and Zeilinga was on target with a penalty in the 19th to stretch the lead to 10 points.
Although Smit kicked a penalty soon after that Zeilinga then had his say in general play as he flipped out a well-targeted skip pass just outside the Cheetahs’ 22 that eventually led to centre Heimar Williams having enough space in front of him to run in a try from relatively long range to make the score 20-6 to the Sharks after 25 minutes.
The Cheetahs clawed their way back into it in the middle stages of the match, a well executed attack leading to a Raymond Rhule try which together with another Smit penalty enabled the Cheetahs to cut the deficit to 10 points (26-16) at the break.
The Cheetahs would have considered themselves to be well back in it when another Smit penalty soon after halftime made it 26-19, but sadly for the team from Bloemfontein that was the last time they scored while the game was still a contest.
In the 45th minute the Sharks put centre Tim Whitehead in behind the Cheetahs defenders for try No 4, then came another from Mvovo to effectively put the game out of sight of the Cheetahs as they trailed 36-19 after 58 minutes.
There were further tries from Daniel and from Cobus Reinach to propel the Sharks to the half century mark, and a healthy points difference advantage over WP, with three matches left to play in the league phase of the competition.
All the Sharks players were good, but Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer should have been particularly pleased with the storming display turned in by flanker Marcel Coetzee.
Meyer’s pleasure should be surpassed though by that of a Sharks management that must now be wearing the satisfied smiles of people who know a plan is coming together.
And what makes the win even more noteworthy was the number of changes made for the game as the Sharks continue with the rotation policy introduced by their new director of rugby Brendan Venter.
On this evidence only WP, who are together with them in what has now developed into a two horse race for the top position on the final log, can stop them.
Barring an upset in the remaining weeks of the competition, we should be set for a classic re-run of last year’s Kings Park final, with the remaining three rounds determining at which coastal venue that deciding game takes place.
Sharks 50 – Tries: SP Marais, Lwazi Mvovo 2, Heimar Williams, Tim Whitehead, Keegan Daniel and Cobus Reinach; Conversions: Fred Zeilinga 3; Penalties: Fred Zeilinga 3. Toyota
Free State Cheetahs 26 – Tries: Raymond Rhule and AJ le Roux; Conversions: Rian Smit 2; Penalties: Riaan Smit 4.