A moment of magic from 19-year-old fullback JP Pietersen gave the Sharks a well-deserved 26-11 victory against the Highlanders at the House of Pain.
With the teams locked at 11-all after an hour of play, Pietersen burst through the Highlanders defence on the halfway line, drew his opposite number Ben Blair and off-loaded to Henno Mentz who scored the game-breaking try.
Former Highlanders flyhalf Tony Brown missed the conversion amid a chorus of boos, but added a penalty soon after to make it 19-11, before flanker Jacques Botes broke away down the right-hand touchline to seal the Sharks’ first win of their overseas tour.
The jaded Highlanders only returned to Dunedin on Tuesday after a three-week tour of South Africa, and faded badly in the final quarter. In contrast, the Sharks stepped up a gear and were pressing for a bonus-point try when the final whistle went.
While Pietersen was the Sharks’ stand-out back, it was captain AJ Venter who made the difference up front. He was superb in the line-outs and an enforcer in the loose.
Hooker John Smit was back to his best, throwing accurately in the line-outs and running confidently with ball in hand, while scrumhalf Craig Davidson made a big impact when he replaced Ruan Pienaar in the second half.
The Highlanders got off to a shaky start when 22-year-old flyhalf Callum Bruce, in for the injured Nick Evans, booted the kick-off straight into touch. Bruce played just one NPC match for Otago before being named in the Highlanders’ Super 14 squad this year and his nervous opening was to be expected.
However, Bruce’s nerves soon settled and the home side grabbed the first try when left wing Richard Kahui, who began the season in the extended Chiefs squad, dotted down in the left-hand corner after appearing to knock the ball forward just before the line. However, unlike at Loftus last night, the TV referee gave the benefit of the doubt to the attacking team who took an early 5-0 lead.
The Sharks responded almost immediately when much-improved winger Odwa Ndungane claimed possession on the halfway line, burnt Kahui on the outside, chipped over the head of Blair and dived on the loose ball.
Brown missed the conversion, but made no mistake with a penalty minutes later to give the Sharks an 8-5 advantage.
Blair’s first penalty of the night drew the teams level, but it was the Durbanites who finished the half camped inside the opposition 22.
The Sharks came close to scoring 10 minutes before the break when winger Henno Mentz was tackled into touch just before grounding the ball in the left-hand corner. The Highlanders then botched the line-out, gifting possession to Johan Ackerman, but the veteran second-rower was tackled back when he looked set to score.
A Blair penalty after half-time gave the Highlanders an 11-8 lead, but the Sharks racked up 18 unanswered points to silence the crowd and claim the four log points that takes them further away from the relegation zone.
Highlanders – Try: Richard Kahui. Penalties: Ben Blair (2).
Sharks – Tries: Odwa Ndungane, Henno Mentz, Jacques Botes. Conversion: Tony Brown. Penalties: Brown (3).