The Cell C Sharks will be celebrating one of the finest achievements in their history after what can only be described as an epic 30-25 win over a shell-shocked Crusaders at AMI Stadium in Christchurch on Saturday.
Not only was it the first win scored by a South African team against the Crusaders at that stadium – and it came on the occasion of stalwart front-rankers Jannie du Plessis and Tendai Mtawarira celebrating their landmark 100th game – it was also achieved by a team that were down to 14 men from the 17th minute and were even reduced to 13 players on the paddock at one stage.
Jean Deysel was sent off in the first half for stomping, and it was a legitimate call. At that stage, with the scores level at 7-all and the Crusaders recovering from what had been a very loose start by their standards, it looked like the sending off might be the ball game.
But Crusaders flanker Richie McCaw and Sharks skipper Bismarck du Plessis summed up in separate interviews what happened from there. As Du Plessis put it, the sending off drew the Sharks players together and made them a heck of a lot more determined. McCaw, speaking at the halftime interval, suggested the sending off had made his team complacent and had forgotten they still had work to do.
It was a brave and passionate defensive effort from the Sharks, while the Crusaders showed they may be vulnerable mentally, as they returned to their stuttering performances of the early rounds. This wasn’t the Crusaders team that buried the Brumbies. It was more like the Crusaders team that lost at home to the Chiefs and Hurricanes and very nearly lost there to the Stormers.
Talking of that last game, this was almost a carbon copy performance from the Crusaders, who were way too lateral and as they had done against the Stormers (a match they were highly fortunate to win) they played to the Sharks’ strength.
The win was an important one, not only for the Sharks but also South Africa, as Christchurch has long been a barrier to South African players, and it proved that the New Zealanders aren’t invincible. At the same time it perhaps also sent out a message about where the South African strength lies. The Sharks were no more inventive than they had been in previous weeks, with kicking, defence and the allround suffocation strategy that took them to the top of the log prevailing on this occasion.
What made the win so remarkable, apart from the Crusaders’ advantage in numbers for most of the game, was the many times the Crusaders regained the lead and looked to be regaining control, only for Jake White’s men to fight back with determination and tenacity each time. The lead changed hands many times, particularly during a tense second half where you could sense the nerves of the Crusaders playing havoc with their intentions.
The Sharks deserved their win as even when they had a disadvantage in numbers they never let the Crusaders dominate the gainline. It seldom looked as though the Crusaders were going to make any headway with ball in hand. Their best try-scoring opportunities in the second half came when they put the ball behind the Sharks with kicks.
The Sharks scored first in the game as they capitalised on the Crusaders’ early loose rugby, and even at that early stage it looked like it might be one of those Crusaders off-nights. The early kicking by the Sharks was poor, but they enjoyed the early territory and it paid off when Frans Steyn broke through and a well-executed pass put S’bura Sithole in for the try.
The Crusaders struck back almost immediately when they effectively punished a poor Sharks kick, this time from Lwazi Mvovo, with the Crusaders being more pinpoint in returning it and the ball bouncing in front of two converging Sharks defenders. Sam Whitelock picked up and passed out to Colin Slade, who had missed a penalty just a minute or two earlier, and the flyhalf slid over for the try that equalised the scores.
Then came Deysel’s stomp, which was replayed for the referee, who really had no choice but to produce the red card on the basis of the evidence put before him. Slade kicked the resultant penalty to put the Crusaders into the lead for the first time in the game.
For the next 10 to 15 minutes the Crusaders were completely dominant, camping inside the Sharks’ 22 for much of that time, and the Sharks struggled to get hold of the ball, repeatedly knocking it on when it was kicked onto them. But the Crusaders could only get another Slade penalty from all the ascendancy they were enjoying at that point, and it came back to bite the home team later.
Perhaps one of the turning points in the game was the penalty that Frans Steyn kicked on the halftime hooter to cut the Crusaders advantage at the break to 13-10. Considering how dominant the Crusaders were in virtually every statistic, the Sharks would have been mightily pleased to go to the break just three points down and it would have boosted their confidence.
What boosted their confidence even more was the way Cobus Reinach, not for the first time, harried Crusaders scrumhalf Willie Heinz into error. Building up from a line-out well inside the Sharks’ half, Heinz passed the ball against Reinach’s knee as he tried to link with the rest of the backline. Reinach, who was at the heart of much of what went right from the Sharks, hoofed ahead and used his pace to win the foot race and score in the left corner.
If the Steyn penalty had given the Sharks some confidence, the Reinach try doubled that and made the team believe they could win. Conversely, the Crusaders started to look more and more rattled.
SIade kicked a penalty to draw the Sharks lead back to just one point but the Sharks responded with one from Steyn, and then two more Slade penalties made it 22-20 to the Crusaders. That lead change should have been a significant one as it coincided with Willem Alberts being yellow carded for tackling the man without the ball. Again though the Crusaders never took advantage, and when Alberts returned, replacement Tim Swiel had kicked a pressure penalty to make it 23-22 to the Sharks.
Another Slade penalty with six minutes left looked like it might be the clincher, but full marks to the Sharks for again not giving up. They got field position and a forward drive resulted in replacement hooker Kyle Cooper – the entire reserve front-row was on by then – bursting through a gap and scoring the match-clinching try.
Crusaders - Tries: Colin Slade. Conversions: Slade. Penalties: Slade (5).
Sharks - Tries: Sibusiso Sithole, Cobus Reinach, Kyle Cooper. Conversions: Frans Steyn (2), Tim Swiel. Penalties: Steyn (2), Swiel.