The Chiefs hit the winning trail again with a 37-29 Vodacom Super Rugby win over the Sharks in Hamilton but the losing team might well look back at this game as a positive turning point in their season.
For a while it looked like the Sharks were no longer Sharks but lambs being led to the slaughter as the Chiefs ran all over them in the first quarter of an hour to take a 24-0 lead that would have stunned their opponents. It wasn’t attitude that was lacking from the Sharks in those early minutes though, just the familiarity and precision you require to be accurate on defence, something which is perhaps the inevitable consequence of having so many changes forced by injury.
After all, the Sharks players were only recently introduced to Derick Minnie as a teammate as opposed to an opponent, and there were several other players playing their first game together as the Sharks rang the changes in the interests of having fresh legs coming on later in the game as well as targeting next week’s clash with the Highlanders in Dunedin.
The attitude of the Sharks in the build-up week would have been one of “We’ve placed an emphasis on rotation and the Chiefs are a tough team to beat at home, so let’s go for broke and maybe we will sneak a bonus point.”
They damn nearly snuck two, and with a bit of luck might even have escaped with one of the greatest comeback wins. Perhaps the big downer for the Sharks in a thoroughly entertaining game was their conceding a penalty in the last minute of the game that enabled the Chiefs to kick a penalty that denied the visitors what would have been a deserved second bonus point.
They had fought hard for it, and skipper Keegan Daniel, who was the culprit in the last loose scrum that conceded the penalty, might kick himself when he watches on video the play where he opted for a tap penalty in front of the posts eight minutes from time.
That would have been an easy three points, and if there was any other option, it was surely to set up a lineout, as the Sharks’ drive off the lineout had been a profitable point scoring avenue for them all night. The Sharks were eight points behind at the time though and a three pointer would have brought them to within seven and second bonus point territory.
As it turned out, they would have thought they had wriggled off the hook when Cobus Reinach broke away to be caught just short of the posts with two minutes to go, and the Chiefs were penalised after Tim Nanai-Williams’ superb from behind tackle had stopped Reinach just short. Patrick Lambie kicked it and it looked like the Sharks would bank two points.
But the Chiefs put them under pressure as the Sharks, thinking a win might still be on, tried to run it back from deep with the sands of time running out. A mistake led to a Chiefs put-in and they then retained possession long enough to force the pressure that saw the Sharks concede a penalty in front of the posts. The anguish was etched all over the faces of players like Lambie and Frans Steyn as Aaron Cruden kicked it as two log points would have been a better than expected reward for their effort.
The Sharks shouldn’t spend too much time though mulling over that last mistake, for they should have plenty to enthuse over from a last hour of the game that saw them score 29 points to 13 and four tries to one. Yes, four tries, with the first coming just after the commentators had noted that they had gone beyond the 280 minute mark, in other words seven halves of rugby, since they had last crossed the whitewash.
It came courtesy of a pod breaking off a driving lineout near the left hand corner, with Minnie dotting down. The Lions loan player scored another try shortly before the break off exactly the same avenue of attack, only this time in the right corner rather than the left as the forwards smashed their way over off another set-piece.
In between that try and the first, No 8 Tera Mtembu had capped a great personal performance by being on hand to capitalise on an inside break by Lambie after good work from McLeod. The scrumhalf by the way had a solid game and his form should off-set the possible loss of Reinach, who was helped from the field after the Nanai-Williams tackle in the dying minutes.
The three tries in the second quarter of the game meant that after being 24-0 down after 16 minutes, the Sharks were right back in it at 24-19 at halftime. They had the momentum and might well have won were it not for a 10 point swing in the third quarter as a poor defensive error in which a Sharks player failed to grab onto a rolling ball and Tim Nanai-Williams kicked through for his second try and a penalty restored the Chiefs’ earlier advantage.
After that though it was all the Sharks until that last Cruden penalty, with the introduction of fresh legs proving that there was method in what some thought was the apparent madness of the Sharks coaching staff in naming the team that they did. One of those new players was regular skipper Daniel, who replaced the impressive Jean Deysel, and he celebrated his arrival by blitzing down the right touchline as the Sharks profited from a great surge up the middle from another freshed leg arrival, Kyle Cooper, with as good a turn-over try as you could wish to see.
The early Chiefs tries were all what could be described as soft tries, although the first was a superb bit of set-play execution, with wing Asaeli Tikoirotuma scoring after the Chiefs had thrown an attacking lineout over the top to Liam Messam and the winger came through to run through a defence that was slow to react.
Bundee Aki, the inside centre, then went through a host of ineffectual tackles two minutes later as the Chiefs once again made maximum use of a lineout in the attack zone, before a Pieter-Steph du Toit pass was knocked on by Odwa Ndungane and Nanai-Williams intercepted to run two thirds of the length of the field to score.
The Sharks can take great heart from the way they fought back but even more than that, the way their running and handling game, not to mention the renewed mongrel of the pack – surely Anton Bresler should start every game - started to come together in the last hour could mark this as the beginning of a surge similar to the one that saw them go from nowhere to the final last year.
Chiefs - Tries: Asaeli Tikoirotuma, Bundee Aki, Tim Nanai-Williams (2). Conversions: Gareth Anscombe (4). Penalties: Anscombe (2), Aaron Cruden.
Sharks - Tries: Derick Minnie (2), Lubabalo Mtembu, Keegan Daniel. Conversions: Pat Lambie (3). Penalty: Lambie.