The slow poison of the Sharks’ scrum enabled the Durban franchise to outlast the DHL Stormers to score a narrow but crucial 12-6 win in a tightly fought Vodacom Super Rugby derby at Kings Park on Saturday night.
It was a game of no tries and there were seldom any hints that one might be scored in what was a classic arm-wrestle confrontation between two sides who never gave an inch to one another and who cancelled each other out in just about every phase.
Just about every phase, but not all, for in a game of small margins even a slight superiority somewhere can make all the difference, and so it proved for the Sharks, who put the Stormers under enough pressure at scrum time to enable them to gain the narrow ascendancy they needed to eke out an important win.
Two wins in two starts is the best start the Sharks have enjoyed in this competition in several years, while for the Stormers it is the exact opposite – they’ve lost twice in two games and are now under pressure.
Stormers coach Allister Coetzee afterwards lamented the unforced errors that kept his team from capitalising on the territorial advantage they enjoyed in the first half.
But then the word unforced can be used subjectively, and perhaps errors in a game where there are such bone-crushing big hits as there were in this one, particularly this early in the season, are understandable.
Certainly the Sharks were guilty of making handling errors too, and there will be some extremely bruised bodies on both sides on Sunday morning.
The game, although played in a near test-match atmosphere on the field, won’t be remembered as a classic because it was too much of a kick-a-thon for that.
In the second half the 30 000 crowd reproduced the Mexican Wave they were renowned for back in the 1990s in what looked an obvious attempt just to inject some life into the occasion.
But the reality is that at this time of year, late summer, the humidity in Durban just makes handling that much more difficult.
Although it didn’t feel that humid in the press box, and there was a cold front that swept through here on Friday, both captains and the coaches attested to the fact that the ball was like a cake of soap.
That being so, the Stormers played the right tactics in the first half, with Elton Jantjies standing up from his no-show at Loftus in the first week of competition by producing a composed performance until he was replaced later by Peter Grant.
Certainly Jantjies’ kicking skills added something different to the Stormers in this game, but unfortunately they couldn’t capitalise on his ability to kick the opposition into the corners as well as his deft little chips that occasionally had the Sharks looking vulnerable.
The best try-scoring opportunity of the match came from a beautifully targeted Jantjies cross-kick, which found Gio Aplon in a position where, with his pace and ability to swerve, he just needed to hold on to the ball and he would be away to score under the posts.
Unfortunately, like the Stormers did far too often for Coetzee’s comfort, Aplon knocked it on.
SCORELESS FIRST HALF
The first half produced one of those rare things in Super Rugby – a scoreless 40 minutes. Apart from Aplon’s missed opportunity there were two kicks at goal from the Sharks, one from close range for Patrick Lambie and a long range one for skipper Frans Steyn.
Lambie found his range straight after halftime though, with the first points of the match being recorded in the 41st minute, and the Stormers responding almost immediately by also forcing a penalty that made it 3-all.
But in the second half, thanks in the main to the pressure forced by the Sharks’ scrum, the Sharks gained just enough of a territorial advantage to build a narrow lead through Lambie’s boot.
And on a night when a try seemed so unlikely, even a narrow lead was always going to be significant.
Even though there were never more than six points in it and in that sense the game was in the balance until the final whistle, it just never felt like the Sharks were going to lose once they got ahead.
Their defence was too good, the Stormers’ scrum wasn’t good enough, and they made too many mistakes, forced or otherwise.
Jean Deysel was a deserved man of the match for his forceful play off the Sharks flank, but even there the Sharks didn’t have the ascendancy they needed for them to really create try scoring opportunities.
The Sharks’ momentum depends on their big loose-forward runners but the Stormers' defence never gave them much more than an inch, and it was why the Sharks’ attacking game never really got going.
The lineouts which were so abysmal last week for the Stormers were better this time, with both teams conceding lineouts against the throw early in the game and then improving once they settled.
It was like an old-fashioned test match, with an old-fashioned test-match type of result.
It's early days and supporters of the two teams can rest assured both will get a lot better once they have played enough rugby to start approaching full gallop.
At this stage though, it is the Sharks who are in the rare position for this stage of the season of sitting quite pretty, while it is the Stormers who are under pressure.
And it doesn’t get easier for them this week as the champion Chiefs prepare to visit Newlands.
The Sharks – .Penalties: Patrick Lambie (4).
DHL Stormers .Penalties: Joe Pietersen (2).