The Cell C Sharks had to dig a lot deeper than many expected they would have had to as they edged out the Highlanders 31-27 in a tense and often pulsating and entertaining Vodacom Super Rugby play-off qualifier at Growthpoint Kings Park on Saturday evening.
The Sharks were heavily favoured to win at home, with the anticipation being that they would advance quite comfortably. And it did look like that when they led 10-0 at the end of the first quarter and were pulverizing the Highlanders at forward.
However, for the second time in the space of a couple of months, the Highlanders gave the Sharks a lesson on how to run, pass and attack with broken play ball. There was a massive momentum shift shortly before halftime that saw the visitors take what had looked an unlikely lead. Full marks to the Sharks though for maintaining composure and sticking to their plan after halftime, which was to keep the ball under a forward blanket as much as possible.
With the Highlanders being penalised at almost every scrum in the match, every scrum that took place in the Highlanders half was either a potential three pointer or an opportunity for the Sharks to set up set phase near the Highlanders line. It worked a charm, with the Highlanders allowing the Sharks back in when their scrum disintegrated and Bismarck du Plessis dived on the ball behind their tryline.
Likewise, when the scrums were set in the Sharks’ half, it aided the Sharks’ exit, and ensured that they were able to play much of the second period in the right areas of the field. That said, the Highlanders might feel they were unlucky to lose. They had so many try scoring opportunities when they did get the ball in their hands, and the Sharks’ defensive system was at sixes and sevens.
The Highlanders led 27-25 with eight minutes to go, and were fortunate to escape conceding a try when Sharks replacement flanker Jean Deysel lost the ball on the line. At the resulting scrum though the Sharks were awarded another penalty – surprise, surprise – and Frans Steyn kicked it from almost in front to take his team back into the lead.
They were never to relinquish the lead, with Steyn surely having visions of the last Super Rugby play-off game to be played at this venue seven years ago when he ran the clock down in kicking a last minute penalty. A much younger Steyn was criticised after the 2007 final against the Bulls for rushing a conversion kick in the last minutes that would have wound the clock down when the Sharks were in the lead.
It was an easy kick this time and Steyn slotted it to give his team a four point lead, and although there was just enough time to restart play, the Sharks fielded the ball from the kick-off and knew the game was theirs if they kicked out. That replacement flyhalf Pat Lambie did to bring cheers of celebration and no doubt also a few sighs of relief from both the Sharks players and their supporters around the world.
It was a close run thing, and for a while it did look as though the South African interest in the competition was going to die with two weeks still to go. As it is, on this evidence, the Sharks are going to have to dig incredibly deep to repeat their recent win in Christchurch in next week’s semifinal for they were played almost to a standstill here.
When the Sharks controlled the game at the start it never looked likely to be such a sweat for them. They played for position, smashed the Highlanders in the early scrums, and Steyn was on the board after just three minutes with a penalty. A big Sharks scrum brought the first of those scrum penalties in the 12th minute, and they opted to set up the lineout drive.
The driving maul was effective, and Marcell Coetzee, who had earlier made a crucial turn-over on the ground, dotted it down for the Sharks to go into a 10-0 lead after 13 minutes after Steyn’s conversion. The Sharks looked well on their way, and could easily have gone 17-0 up just a few minutes later had it not been for a desperate cover tackle that prevented an almost certain Sharks try.
Then came a moment when the Sharks did think they had scored, with Jannie du Plessis touching down only to be adjudged on the TMO and referee Steve Walsh’s second look to be guilty of a double movement. So the Highlanders had the penalty and they escaped, as they were to do for much of the rest of the half.
More than that, they suddenly started picking up momentum as the Sharks’ field kicking game lost it’s accuracy. You don’t give the Highlanders even half chances to counter-attack, and they were brilliant with the way they kept the ball moving and with their angles and lines of running. A Lima Sopoaga penalty drew three points back for them and although Steyn was immediately on target with one of his own to make it 13-3, you sensed that their had been a significant momentum shift as gaps opened up in the Sharks defensive system.
Jarrad Hoeata probably blew a try scoring chance with a wrong option, but the Highlanders were starting to outflank their opponents, who were being forced to scramble. Malakai Fekitoa scored the first Highlanders try as he broke through off a short pass. After the hooter the Highlanders took a quick tap deep in their own territory that led to perhaps the finest try seen at this stadium this year.
Richard Buckman did much of the running after co-captain Ben Smith’s quick tap and then it was prop Kane Hames who rounded off, the conversion making it 17-13 to the Highlanders at halftime. The Sharks were effective in slowing the game down in the second half and playing to their strengths. Du Plessis’ try off that aforementioned destructive scrum was quickly followed by a brilliant run down the left touchline that netted Tonderai Chavhanga a try in the corner.
The Sharks were ahead 25-20, but the Highlanders weren’t finished, another poor kick, this time from Cobus Reinach, being fielded by Patrick Osborne who brought in Ben Smith and then himself scorched through before sending in centre Phil Burleigh. The conversion made it 27-25, and it remained that way until those fateful last minutes when the Sharks wrapped up the game.
There were casualties along the way for the Sharks, perhaps the most serious of which was what looked like a rib injury to lock Anton Bresler. Much of the six day turn-around before Friday’s semifinal is going to be taken up with bruised bodies being put through the recovery process.
Cell C Sharks – Tries: Marcell Coetzee, Bismarck du Plessis and Tonderai Chavhanga; Conversions: Frans Steyn 2; Penalties: Frans Steyn 4.
Highlanders – Tries: Malakai Fekitoa, Kane Hames and Phil Burleigh; Conversions: Lima Sopoaga 3; Penalties: Lima Sopoaga