The Sharks made telling use of a potent bench to ensure that they snuffed out a thrilling Toyota Cheetahs fightback on the way to securing a 29-22 win in their Super Rugby opener at Free State Stadium on Saturday.
A lot of things have changed in South African rugby over the years but one thing has remained the same –write off the team formerly known by everyone as Vrystaat and you tempt disaster.
The game looked over as a contest when the Sharks went into a 26-5 lead after building up some momentum in the middle stages of the match following a slow start, and the speculation turned not to whether the Sharks would win or not but whether they might grab a four-try bonus point.
The Cheetahs, though, had other ideas. They’ve always been great counter-attackers and suddenly they were running the ball back at the Sharks with interest, as a try to flanker Lappies Labuschagne in the left corner after a great inter-passing movement that started inside their own half appeared to galvanise the hosts into action.
That score came with a quarter of the match to go, and just a few minutes later the Cheetahs were right back in the game when Johan Sadie, who looks so much more at home in the Cheetahs backline than he did at the Bulls last year, finished off another great cross-field sweeping attack in the left corner.
Springbok flyhalf Johan Goosen, himself instrumental in the Cheetahs' revival with his inventive and adventurous play, kicked both conversions to leave Adriaan Strauss’s men just seven points short.
That deficit dwindled further when the Cheetahs surged back onto the attack and then secured another penalty that Goosen goaled from close range.
With 13 minutes to go, and with the Sharks playing at altitude after fewer warm-up games than the Cheetahs put themselves through, it was suddenly looking like it might be the Cheetahs’ game.
But then up stepped the Sharks' bench players, most crucially big bullocking loose-forward Jean Deysel but also young Pieter-Steph du Toit, and they were able to get enough forward momentum to ensure that the dying minutes were played mostly inside the Cheetahs’ half.
Du Toit actually went over in the corner but the try was disallowed because the Sharks had stepped into touch, but Patrick Lambie, the man of the match, was able to kick an easy penalty with four minutes to go to ensure that the Sharks at worst would leave Bloemfontein with a draw.
And it damn nearly became a draw when Cheetahs fullback Hennie Daniller was given the small bit of space he needed to set off towards the tryline down the left flank, with the Sharks only just keeping him out.
But while it was a bit close for comfort, the Sharks eventually did hold out for a deserved win that did just enough to confirm their right to be considered one of the favoured teams in the South African conference and in the battle for supremacy on the overall log.
The win should have pleased Sharks coach John Plumtree because he has placed a big stress this year on getting out of the blocks quickly, and it has been a while since the Sharks have got off to a winning start in Super Rugby.
Coming in Bloemfontein, long considered a hoodoo venue for the Durbanites, would have been particularly satisfying.
SLOPPY AT TIMES
The Sharks were sloppy at times and in the first quarter they produced the same slew of errors that kept their fellow coastal team, the Stormers, in first gear against the Bulls the previous night.
But one thing they did have in their favour was a rock-solid scrum that played a big role in laying the platform for the victory and in setting up the 26 unanswered points either side of halftime that set the visitors on the road to success.
Plumtree would not be pleased, though, with the ease with which the Cheetahs' pack surged over from an attacking lineout for the first try of the match, which was dotted down by Philip van der Walt in the 10th minute.
The pack made amends by blunting the Cheetahs' maul when they were in a similar position later in the opening half, and also went over for their own driving-maul try, dotted down by Marcel Coetzee, in the second half.
But it should nonetheless be a concern for Plumtree ahead of a match against the Stormers, who are one of the best at that avenue of attack.
The lineout that was an Achilles heel in last year’s Currie Cup final is also far from functioning smoothly, and while there may have been intent behind Lwazi Mvovo’s rush onto a long throw that evaded Ryan Kankowski and led to the Sharks’ first try, it was actually the product of some rather sloppy work.
So was the first Cheetahs try, with the lineout that the Cheetahs attacked off being set up by Willie le Roux’s hack up field of a loose ball.
It was the last time the Cheetahs scored in the half, though, and Lambie’s goalkicking coupled with the Mvovo try saw the Sharks lead 16-5 at the break.
The game certainly produced plenty of excitement, and some quality play from the two flyhalves who wore the Springbok jersey towards the end of last season.
Goosen, after his long layoff, was effective for the Cheetahs, but Lambie was a match winner for the Sharks, both with the way he mixed up play and ensured the match was played in the right areas and with his 100% goalkicking record.
Toyota Cheetahs – Tries: Phillip van der Walt, Pieter Labuschagne, Johann Sadie. Conversions: Johan Goosen (2). Penalty: Goosen.
Sharks – Tries: Lwazi Mvovo, Marcell Coetzee. Conversions: Pat Lambie (2). Penalties: Lambie (5).