The Cell C Sharks maintained their unbeaten record as they powered to a 35-20 Vodacom Super Rugby win over the Reds at Growthpoint Kings Park in Durban on Saturday night.
As seems to have become habit for the Sharks, they produced a strong first half and looked destined to bury the Reds by a big score, only for the Reds to come back into the game in the third quarter before, and again this has become a trend, the Sharks finished them off with a try that stretched their lead in the last minutes.
The Sharks and Reds shared the try-scoring stakes at two apiece, with the ultimate difference between the sides, on the scoreboard at least, being the Sharks’ goalkicking display on a night where referee Lourens van der Merwe penalised the visitors with impunity.
The Sharks led 25-6 at halftime, with the Reds coming back to 28-20 before reserve prop Dale Chadwick crashed over for the second Sharks try in the 78th minute.
Considering the withdrawals during the week of first the centre Paul Jordaan and then star young lock Pieter-Steph du Toit, who has been ruled out for the season, coach Jake White should be happy with the win.
Once again his team suffocated their opponents in the first half, forcing the Reds to play catch-up as they tried to make up the 19-point leeway in the second half.
The Sharks were clinical and fairly error-free during the first 40 minutes, but White will see the third quarter as a wake-up call for his team, who may have been fortunate that Reds No 8 Jake Schatz was yellow carded just as the side from Australia drew to within eight points of them with their second try.
The Sharks looked flat for most of the second half, only to lift a gear in the last minutes.
The beginning of the game was quintessential Sharks since White took over as coach. Although Quade Cooper drew first blood for the Reds with a penalty in the second minute, the Sharks quickly began to apply the pressure at forward that they had in the previous weeks, with the big men rumbling the ball up and the kickers probing into the corners.
The Sharks enjoyed the early territorial advantage but it took a kick from near halfway from Frans Steyn to draw the scores level at 3-all.
Cooper got his team back into the lead with 16 minutes gone with another penalty, and in the period after that it became the Patrick Lambie show as the Sharks flyhalf slotted three kicks in succession to stretch his men to a 12-6 lead after 25 minutes.
The Sharks’ attacking game wasn’t working that well to that point, and to be fair their policy seemed to be strangulation rather than to run the ball in the humid conditions, so there was some irony in their first try in that it was brilliantly executed – the only question being whether the cross kick from SP Marais that found JP Pietersen on the right wing was intentional or not.
It looked as though Marais was probing for territory down the right touchline but the ball skewed off his boot, and if that was the case it was fortuitous.
But full marks to the Sharks for the way they made use of their opportunity, with Pietersen bringing outside centre S’bura Sithole into play on the loop before carrying the ball on himself. When Pietersen was checked, big Willem Alberts bustled through for the first try of the match.
At 19-6 it was a one-sided game, and it became even more so when first Lambie, and then later on Steyn from well inside his own half, added further penalties.
There weren’t really enough lineouts in the game to fully assess how much Du Toit was missed as a leader in that phase.
As Reds skipper James Horwill put it afterwards, “They put us under a bit of pressure, and we in turn put them under a bit of pressure.”
In the second half the Reds had enough opportunities to come right back into the game, with the momentum shift straight after halftime being immediately noticeable.
Horwill didn’t sound satisfied afterwards with the refereeing of Van der Merwe, and the penalties played a role in checking the Reds' momentum just when they looked like they might get the bit between their teeth.
The Sharks though worked hard on defence, and Marcell Coetzee was a deserved recipient of the man of the match award for his industriousness both on attack and when trying to slow down the opposition attacks.
The Sharks, after playing controlled rugby in the first half, appeared to lose the plot a bit by rushing the play a bit, and it favoured the Reds when the game started to resemble a sevens contest.
The first Reds try was scored in the 53rd minute when after a sustained build-up, the bashing away at the line eventually saw Ryan Kankowski miss the tackle that admitted Mike Harris to the tryline.
The second Reds try came 10 minutes later and was the result of an even more glaring defensive error, with Will Genia running through unmarked around the fringes of a loose scrum and running 30 metres to score.
The Sharks had moved the scoreboard along through another Lambie penalty between those two tries, so the score was 28-20 when Schatz was sent from the field for a repeat infringement after the Reds had been warned by the referee.
It was a bit odd that the Sharks opted to kick for touch when they were awarded a penalty soon after that. They had only scored one try and there were not much more than 10 minutes left.
White explained afterwards that the players had been under the impression that they had already scored three tries and were pushing for the fourth.
According to White, even at the end, when Dale Chadwick fell over the line to rub it into the Reds and make it a 15 point victory, they were under the impression they were pushing for the bonus point try. It wasn’t, but at least the mistake didn’t cost the Sharks.
Sharks - Tries: Willem Alberts, Dale Chadwick. Conversion: Patrick Lambie. Penalties: Patrick Lambie(5), Francois Steyn(2).
Blues- Tries: Mike Harris, Will Genia. Conversion: Quade Cooper(2). Penalties: Quade Cooper(2).