The Highlanders ensured that the Cell C Sharks will depart for their tour of Australasia in the negative space they were so desperate to avoid as the Kiwis scored a comprehensive 34-18 Vodacom Super Rugby win at Growthpoint Kings Park on Friday night.
The visitors scored four tries to nil and were full value for a victory which can be seen as yet another rugby lesson dished out by a New Zealand team to a South African one.
With the Sharks top of the local conference and the Kiwis last on theirs before the match, it was a disturbing result for South Africa, particularly as it happened on the Sharks’ home ground.
The Sharks were rocked in the final build-up to the game by the withdrawal through injury of skipper Bismarck du Plessis and flank Jean Deysel.
Kyle Cooper came in for Du Plessis and Willem Alberts shifted to flank in Deysel’s place from lock, with Etienne Oosthuizen coming into his place. But those disruptions cannot explain the Sharks’ poor performance, which in some ways rivalled last year’s loss to the Brumbies for first-half no-shows.
Make no mistake, the Highlanders were outstanding. They had the Sharks chasing shadows with their ability to spread the play away from contact, and the likes of fullback Ben Smith and scrumhalf Aaron Smith underlined just why they are rated so highly in their own country with their intelligent attacking play.
The Highlanders ran ball that was kicked on them with telling effect, and they varied play with the sort of intelligence that hasn’t often been seen from South African teams in this Super Rugby season.
Indeed, on the subject of intelligence, you have to ask just why the Sharks persisted in kicking the ball down the throats of the opposing back three when they knew they were such excellent counter-attackers.
There was a lot that was naïve about the Sharks’ performance and they have some soul-searching to do as they cross the Indian Ocean on Saturday for Australia, where they play their first tour match on Friday against the Melbourne Rebels.
Coach Jake White is also clearly going to have to rethink his selection at flyhalf too. Frans Steyn moved to pivot in place of Tim Swiel in the second half after the youngster was involved in a mix-up with SP Marais under a high ball from the Highlanders that was an elementary schoolboy error.
Earlier he had been pinpoint with some kicks at goal but had missed a few others as the Sharks struggled to tick over the scoreboard in a first half where it was the Highlanders doing the flying.
Steyn’s lengthier kicking did make some difference when he was at flyhalf, but there was too much ground to make up and the Sharks didn’t respond well to the pressure of having to play catch up.
To put it simply, the Sharks made too many basic errors, and their inability to hold onto the ball in contact, particularly in the first half, cost them dearly.
Scrumhalf Charl McLeod led the Sharks in the absence of Du Plessis, and it was clear from an early stage that he was going to have a struggle on his hands.
The Highlanders were first to score through a Lima Sopoaga penalty and then the Sharks were unfortunate to have what looked like a good try to fullback Lwazi Mvovo disallowed on the grounds that a Sharks player cleared a ball out ahead of the ruck.
Swiel did kick a penalty as referee Jaco Peyper took play back after the try was disallowed to where he was playing advantage, and then kicked another a few minutes later as the Sharks took the lead for the first, and what was to prove the only, time in the game.
After that it was all the Highlanders as a great chip kick from Shaun Treeby found Richard Buckmanwho went over near the corner flag.
The conversion from Sopoaga made it 10-6 and although another Swiel kick, in between a few misses, found the mark to make it 10-9, it was obvious that the Highlanders were a few steps ahead of the Sharks and had come to play.
The only area where the visitors struggled was in the scrums, where after netting an early penalty they were under a lot of pressure.
But it was a night where the Highlanders found several ways to bother the Sharks, and the Kings Park crowd was subject to the unedifying sight of a Kiwi team scoring a try against a top South African team off a driving maul from a lineout.
That was after a 26th-minute try for the Highlanders where Aaron Smith had broken through around the fringe of a ruck under the Sharks’ posts.
Heading towards the break the Highlanders were 24-9 ahead and the Sharks looked well out of it, a late penalty from Swiel only marginally improving the mood of the hosts as they went to the break 12 points behind.
The Sharks fought back in the third quarter with two further penalties to cut the deficit to six points, and it was a close game as the game went to the hour mark.
But the Sharks were unable to make full use of a 15 against 14 advantage in numbers after Highlanders lock Joe Wheeler was sin-binned for a repeat infringement in the 49th minute, and they paid for it once it was a 15 against 15 game again, with the Highlanders getting noticeably stronger the longer the game lasted.
A Sopoaga penalty stretched the Highlanders more than a score ahead with 14 minutes to go and by that stage the Highlanders had recovered well enough from their 20 minute hiatus, and were also helped in no small measure by the Sharks’ policy of kicking the ball onto them.
It was after fielding a kick near the halfway line that Malakai Fekitoa set off on a devastating run, swerving in and out of the tired Sharks defenders, to score near the posts.
That netted the Highlanders their four-try bonus point and it enabled them to jump from fifth to second on the New Zealand conference.
The Sharks hold onto their lead at the top of the overall log, but by just a point, and with the second-placed Brumbies due to host them in Canberra in two weeks from now, it suddenly isn’t as plain sailing for the Sharks as it was.
Sharks- Penalties: Tim Swiel (6).
Highlanders - Tries: Richard Buckman, Aaron Smith, Shane Christie, Malakai Fekitoa. Conversions: Lima Sopoaga (4). Penalties: Sopoaga (2).