The Sharks will probably look back at a long-range penalty from Patrick Lambie, who was right at the limit of his range, on the stroke of halftime as the momentum shifter that set them on course for an ultimately deserved 21-17 Vodacom Super Rugby win over the Crusaders at Kings Park in Durban on Friday night.
The Sharks were completely out of it in the first half, with the Crusaders enjoying the edge in almost every aspect of play as they looked to carry on the momentum they picked up over three other South African teams, the Bulls, Southern Kings and Stormers, in the preceding weeks. The Sharks, to put it simply, were just allowing the Crusaders too much momentum in carrying the ball by being too passive on defence.
The Sharks didn’t struggle quite as much in the lineouts as the Stormers had, but they were still under a bit of pressure there in the first half, and they struggled to create any kind of platform to attack from. Although they did benefit from a few scrum penalties, they were under more pressure than usual at that phase before halftime too.
The Crusaders were always the team that looked more likely to score a try, and by halftime the Sharks had been forced to rack up quite a high tackle count. Indeed, the Sharks were decidedly fortunate to be only two points adrift at halftime (11-9) of a game that started off in a somber atmosphere as the crowd stood for a minute’s silence to show respect for Brett Williams, who was killed in a late night incident at this ground two weeks ago, and two KwaZulu-Natal schoolboys who died during a schools festival last week.
Apart from some promise in the opening minutes, where the Sharks surged onto the attack carrying the ball up and forcing a Crusaders offence that enabled Lambie to kick his first penalty after just two minutes of play, there was seldom any prospect of the Sharks scoring a five pointer during that first period. The Crusaders defence, as it had been at crucial stages of the Stormers game, was rock solid, whereas the Sharks midfield looked a little vulnerable in the face of Robbie Freaun’s strong running.
Frans Steyn, playing at fullback for the first time in a long while, was also caught out of position too often for comfort by the Crusaders, although the visitors arguably didn’t make enough of this avenue of trying to get an advantage.
It didn’t look like it was going to count against them building up to the break though, as the Crusaders dominated territory and committed the Sharks to a defensive game that was bound to sap energy and lead to the Crusaders getting opportunities later on. Or at least that was how it seemed. It never turned out that way.
The Crusaders scored the only try of the match, a brilliantly engineered score completed by scrumhalf Andy Ellis off an attack which had been sparked by a strong run from centre Freuan up the left flank. Once the advantage in numbers was created, the move was carried on by wing Adam Whitelock, who with options either side of him and just one Sharks defender in the way, sent Ellis in for the score.
That gave the Crusaders the lead for the first time after 21 minutes, and it was one they were not to relinquish until midway through the second half, when Lambie finally nosed the Sharks back ahead as they came back far more inspired at the restart of the game than they had been in the first 40 minutes.
But the Crusaders didn’t help themselves by failing to capitalise on the scoring opportunities that did present themselves. Flyhalf Tyler Bleyendaal missed two easily kickable chances in the first half, one a penalty and a conversion, and then a two more in the dying stages of the second when one success would have regained them the lead.
By contrast, Lambie was on target with every kick he took at goal, succeeding with seven out of seven. But perhaps the most crucial score was that penalty near the end of the first half. The Crusaders had been on attack and were already ahead 11-6, when the Sharks profited from some good fortune and managed to get themselves back to the halfway line, where a referee assistant call played in their favour as Lambie was presented with a kick many might have thought would be taken by Steyn.
Lambie snuck the ball over the cross-bar by millimetres, and the Sharks found themselves just two adrift in a game where they could easily have been 10 adrift.
Whether their coach John Plumtree reminded them how fortunate they were at halftime is not known, but he must have said something, for the Sharks reversed the momentum in the second half quite comprehensively.
Suddenly the few little teething problems they had at lineout time disappeared, and it was their strength in the set-phases after halftime, as well as a significant lift in their defensive intensity, that powered them to victory. Their scrum grew stronger as the game progressed.
There was a long period of sustained pressure from the Sharks where they were only just held up by a valiant cover tackle by the Crusaders on lock Franco van der Merwe on the corner flag, and they again challenged as they spread the ball in the opposite direction a few moments later. They never crossed the line, but the more confident rugby they were playing did net the penalties that enabled Lambie to forge his team ahead.
The lead did swop hands on a few occasions, with the Crusaders coming back to regain it with a Bleyendaal penalty with 20 minutes to go, but Lambie converted a scrum penalty with 12 minutes to go that nosed the home side back ahead again. With Bleyendaal failing to kick the attempts he was presented with which would have put the Crusaders back in front, the crowd got in behind the Sharks and they finished the stronger of the two teams.
Sharks – Penalty: Pat Lambie (7).
Crusaders– Try: Andy Ellis. Penalty: Tyler Bleyendaal (4)