The Sharks made it three out of three in the Absa Currie Cup when they beat the Pumas 34-16 in Durban on Friday night.
Sharks coach Dick Muir made 12 changes to the starting XV that beat Western Province last weekend, as part of his dual-squad system, and included eight Currie Cup rookies in his match 22.
The new-look Natal side was virtually identical to the Wildebeest team that beat the Pumas 26-13 in the Vodacom Cup, and they produced a similar result.
Four first-half tries wrapped it up for the Sharks, but they could only add one more in a truly woeful second half. In fact, the few thousand fans who actually stuck around for the final whistle, instead of getting an early start in the beer garden, deserve a medal.
Casper Steyn, who’s somehow still cashing a rugby pay cheque at 32, put the Pumas in front with an early penalty, before the Sharks hit back with a great team try. The home side claimed possession on the halfway line, and mauled it up into the Pumas’ 22, before taking it wide. Flyhalf Steve Meyer switched with fellow Currie Cup debutant Craig Burden, and the left wing barged through five tackles to score.
Steyn added another penalty to reduce the gap to one, before Pumas left wing Hyron Thysse botched a certain try when he intercepted a poor pass from Jaco Gouws, only to knock it on. However, the Pumas took a 13-7 lead a minute later when flyhalf Pieter Benade outstripped Keegan Daniel and Brett Hennessey to score in the left-hand corner.
It was another Currie Cup debutant, Wouter Moore, who responded for the Sharks after a kickable penalty was put into touch. The forwards won the line-out, created the driving maul and the second-rower just had to fall down for his side’s second try.
The Sharks dominated the next 10 minutes, but were kept out by a combination of determined defence and illegal tactics at the breakdown.
Twice, Daniel bashed his way up towards the tryline and twice he was stopped in his tracks, which is why his critics believe he must bulk up considerably in order to make an impact at senior level. The Baby Bok flank was also guilty of failing to offload in the tackle and died with the ball far too often.
The Pumas finally worked their way out of their own half and should have scored when scrumhalf Ashieq Wise went blind, regathered his chip ahead, but lost the ball over the tryline. His mistake was punished almost immediately when his opposite number Sandile Nxumalo broke away on the halfway line, bamboozled the Pumas defence with two dummies and dived over next to the posts.
The visitors appeared to have scored their second try when hooker Ashton Constant reclaimed the ball from a 5m line-out, but the referee spotted a marginal forward pass. However, Steyn then slotted a drop goal from 40m, before Meyer missed an absolute sitter of a penalty.
The Sharks secured the bonus-point on the stroke of half-time when poor Pumas defence around the fringes saw Nxumalo dart away for his second try and a 26-16 lead.
Any hopes the Pumas had of turning things around, ended when flanker Duane Vermeulen was sent to the sin bin for a dangerous tackle on Hennessey soon after the restart. However, the Sharks failed to capitalise against 14 men and only a Meyer penalty extended their lead going into the final quarter.
The Sharks finally crossed the tryline, with five minutes remaining, when Burden kicked ahead a poor Pumas pass and collected the loose ball for his second score.
While Nxumalo was named Man of the Match, it was arguably Burden who enhanced his reputation the most.
Sharks - Tries: Craig Burden (2), Wouter Moore, Sandile Nxumalo (2). Conversions: Steve Meyer (3). Penalty: Meyer.
Pumas - Try: Pieter Benade. Conversion: Casper Steyn. Penalties: Steyn (2). Drop goal: Steyn.
By Simon Borchardt