The Cell C Sharks held on in the face of a late comeback to score a 22-16 win over the Rebels in Melbourne that finally broke the long sequence of failure for South African teams in overseas games in this year’s Vodacom Super Rugby.
The Sharks capitalised on a strong defensive effort and their ability to punish the Rebels with turn-over ball in a match in which the Rebels would certainly have felt they had their opportunities. But while the Rebels struggled to hold onto final passes and the Sharks’ scramble defence kept denying them until a late try off a tap penalty made the final minutes interesting, the Sharks made maximum use of their opportunities.
The Sharks’ game-plan was quintessential Sharks rugby since Jake White has been with them as director of rugby and can be summed up by the word strangulation. The Sharks never ran anything from set-phase ball or after receiving ball from kicks in their own half, and when you have Frans Steyn playing flyhalf, you can ensure you play enough of the game in opposition territory.
But when the Sharks were presented with turn-over ball it didn’t matter where on the field they were, and the match clincher was a try scored by JP Pietersen that was started deep inside Sharks territory in the 63rd minute after the Rebels had been building up impressively. It wasn’t the first time the Sharks had counter-attacked from that situation, but it was the most effective as the fullback, Lwazi Mvovo, was put into space down the left.
Pietersen moved inside Mvovo as he took the pass and the change of direction left the Rebels defence stumped, with the Springbok wing going over untouched to put his team 13 points ahead. The Rebels fought back with a try to reserve hooker Pat Leafa with 10 minutes to go, but it was a questionable score.
It came off a quick tap when the Sharks captain Bismarck du Plessis had been asked to talk to his players and was thus reminiscent of the Paul Honiss blunder that allowed Ireland to score a crucial try against the Springboks in Dublin in 2004.
If that was a blunder from the referee, it wasn’t the only one of the game that was to cost the Sharks. They managed a break-out early in the game and Mvovo chased a kick onto the Rebels line only for a Rebels player to intentionally tap the ball into touch in goal. The referee ruled it was a penalty but his assertion that a try wouldn’t have been scored, and thus it didn’t justify a penalty try, was highly questionable as Mvovo was effectively in the act of catching the ball and was over the Rebels’ line.
One of the freaky things about the Sharks win was the fact that it came mainly through their ability to turn over the Rebels’ possession on a day where they saw little of their ace fetcher Marcell Coetzee. The flanker went off early in the game and was replaced by Keegan Daniel. Coetzee is an important cog in the Sharks machine, so with some much tougher tour matches to come, the Sharks will be hoping that his injury isn’t too serious.
Daniel did well as a replacement, but perhaps the stand-out for the Sharks was the thumping tackles put in by Jean Deysel. In so doing, the big blindsider perhaps helped ensure that the Rebels kept making the errors that presented the Sharks with turn-over opportunities.
The Sharks should have made better use of the penalty they were presented after the tap back incident. Off the line-out the Sharks tried to rumble it up and then moved the ball left and right across the field, but impatience cost them as Steyn kicked and enabled the Rebels to escape the pressure by running the ball into touch in goal.
After that, for most of the next 20 minutes, it was mainly the Rebels, who dominated territory and possession, although the hosts seldom looked like breaking down the well-organised and highly physical Sharks defensive system.
Jason Woodward put the Rebels ahead after 17 minutes but Steyn drew three points back to make it 3-all after 20 minutes and then the Sharks took the lead off a scrum penalty – there had been a scrum free kick against them earlier and the Rebels scrum gave as good as it got through the 80 minutes – as the score went to 6-3 after 25 minutes.
Thereafter it was three Steyn penalties against one from Woodward as the Sharks applied the pressure late in the half to take a 15-6 lead to the break. The Sharks’ best attacking play of the match was produced in the first part of the second half, when they enjoyed territorial ascendancy, but the Rebels held firm and struck back with a penalty from Woodward to make it a six point game.
Then came the turn-over try rounded off by Pietersen and, the late Rebels fightback notwithstanding, the Sharks were on their way to a confidence-boosting win in the first tour match, and yet another strong response to defeat.
Rebels - Tries: Pat Leafa Conversion: Jason Woodward. Penalties: Jason Woodward (3).
Sharks - Tries: JP Pietersen. Conversions: Frans Steyn . Penalties: Frans Steyn (5)