The impossible dream of winning a Super Rugby title the hard way edged closer for the Sharks on Saturday as they powered to an impressive 26-19 win over the table-topping Stormers in the Newlands semifinal.
If the Sharks were good last week against the Reds in Brisbane they were even better in this match, with the scrum gaining the early ascendancy that was always going to be necessary if they were to overcome the debilitating effects of jetlag. Off that platform they forced the Stormers to play under pressure, and the Cape team, to be frank, just didn’t respond well enough.
The Stormers have shown a remarkable refusal to lose all year and by playing for each other and their coach they probably way exceeded both their abilities and many expectations by topping the log. After all, the Sharks team they lost to in this game had six starting Springbok forwards whereas the Stormers only had one, and before this game the Stormers had lost just twice in 16 starts.
That spirit and determination made its presence felt during a frenetic final 13 minutes where the Stormers closed a 14 point gap to just four at one stage, but ultimately, well though the Sharks played in what was a performance built around efficiency and brutal direct rugby rather than the flair that triumphed seven days earlier, Jean de Villiers’s men probably had themselves to blame for being in a position where they were chasing the game in the first place.
Make no mistake, the Sharks are a better team than the Stormers -- maybe not as consistent over a full season, but certainly equipped with more players who can harm the opposition -- and they deserve credit for the efficient way they played.
In the first quarter it was clear the Sharks had pitched, and although Eben Etzebeth floored Bismarck du Plessis with an impressive shoulder charge early on, it was the Durbanites who dominated the all-important early battle of the gainline.
For the Stormers, knowing that their opponents had spent so much time in aeroplanes recently, it was always going to be a case of them needing to ensure they kept the scores level or thereabouts until the last quarter of the game.
So despite the early ascendancy of the Sharks forwards, the Stormers would have been pleased with some of the territorial advantage they had in the first half, and at the half hour mark it looked like it might be the Stormers who would take the lead after a Frederic Michalak penalty and drop goal had cancelled out an early success from Peter Grant.
COMEDY OF ERRORS
Joe Pietersen drew the man on attack and Bryan Habana squeezed through down the left flank. Had he been on target with his pass inside, it would have been a Stormers try. But it didn’t go to hand and the Sharks were able to relieve the situation when they were awarded a penalty from a defensive scrum five metres out from their line after 33 minutes.
From the ensuing lineout a high ball was launched onto Joe Pietersen near the Stormers 22 metre line. It was a perfectly targeted kick from Riaan Viljoen, who had been included in the Shark side unannounced in an attempt to blunt the Stormers’ kicking game. Louis Ludik was the man who had to move from fullback to the right wing to accommodate him, and it was the self-same Ludik who beat Pietersen in the air, swiveled out of an attempted tackle and used his pace to get to the line.
It was the crucial moment of the match, for suddenly it was 13-3 with halftime looming, and the Sharks had the lead they would have been looking for. But it could so easily have been the other way had the Stormers not come up with a slew of elementary errors every time they went into the Sharks’ 22 metre area, which was often enough for them to make it count, and that was what cost them.
When it mattered most they simply lacked the efficiency that was needed, and as the game wore on you could sense them becoming more nervous and frustrated. The nerves were advertised by the number of times the Stormers catchers failed to take the ball cleanly when the Sharks kicked on them.
Although they kicked an important penalty just before halftime to cut the deficit to seven, the match situation needed the Stormers to start the second half strongly, but in the face of pressure applied by a Sharks team that knew the first minutes of the half were going to be crucial to the result, they ended up being pinned inside their own territory.
The Stormers, who admittedly were being hit hard by the Sharks players in the contact, started to look more and more jittery, and they came up with some plays that just had panic written all over them, with the expression comedy of errors possibly being the most apt way of describing their game. It helped the Sharks keep their composure, and their territorial dominance in the first six minutes after the restart eventually resulted in a penalty that enabled Michalak to stretch the lead back to 10.
Grant made it 16-9 with a penalty after 56 minutes, but it was a three pointer they laboured too long over, and the Sharks would have felt the seven point buffer might just be enough as they headed into the unknown of the last 20 minutes in a game where travel fatigue was so clearly going to be a factor.
In retrospect, given the way the Stormers finished, it might not have been enough had it not been for JP Pietersen, playing at centre to enable Viljoen to play fullback and Ludik on the wing. Pietersen, who has been in such sublime form recently, continued in that vein as he scythed through to score untouched near the posts at the very moment the critical final quarter arrived.
As is so often the case, being effectively out of the game seemed to galvanise the Stormers, and they played some rousing, although not always intelligent rugby, after that. Gio Aplon went over for a try that was converted by Grant with 13 minutes to go, and six minutes later a penalty in front enabled Grant to make it 23-19.
But although tired the Sharks were still hungry, and they summoned up enough passion for one last sortie into Stormers territory, which netted another Michalak drop-goal, which left the Stormers needing to score a converted try to win it.
They tried gallantly to do it, and came within centimetres on a couple of occasions, but Sharks captain Keegan Daniel turned over a Stormers ball after the hooter to seal a deserved win for his team that books them the dubious prize of having to fly now all the way to Hamilton on the north island of New Zealand for the final.
DHL Stormers – Try: Gio Aplon. Conversion: Peter Grant. Penalties: Grant (4).
Sharks – Tries: Louis Ludik, JP Pietersen. Conversions: Frederic Michalak (2). Penalties: Michalak (2). Drop goals: Michalak (2).