The Sharks completely fell apart as the Waratahs produced an impressive performance to win 28-13 and secure their place in the Super 14 final.
Forty four minutes. That’s all it took for this contest to be declared over. Two first half rabbit punches in the space of five minutes were followed a double blow to the jugular just after the break. Just like that, the Sharks’ final ambitions crumbled. They never deserved to get there though. Fifteen points was the difference on the scoreboard but the gap in class between the two sides was far wider than that.
The Sharks came into this match aware that the Tahs possessed a number of attacking threats. Beale, Palu, Tuqiri. These were the names which would have been bandied about in the Sharks’ camp this week.
Vickerman and Waugh would have featured to a lesser extent, but it would be those men who were at the heart of everything that was good about the Tahs, and were the root cause of everything that was bad about the Sharks.
Vickerman had clearly cracked the Sharks’ lineout calls. With every lineout feed Sharks hooker Bismarck du Plessis’s self confidence was devoured by the South African-born lock. Thrice in the first half alone, Vickerman’s skill saw Johann Muller and Steven Sykes grabbing a handful of Sydney air – two of those in the red zone, while the other lead directly to the Tahs’ first try – Lote Tuqiri profiting after Rob Horne had put a strong shoulder tackle on Adi Jacobs which dislodged the ball.
Waugh, the Sharks’ bane in their Round 11 fixture, played a supporting role this time. But his contribution was equally pivotal.
If Vickerman ruled the air, there was no disputing who the general of the ground patrol was. An isolated Shark was a dead one, the blond scavenger gobbling up every opportunity to slow and turnover ball.
Déjà vu for the Sharks? Damn right. And it was only a matter of time before the they were watching an all too familiar scene play out. Waugh turned over in his own half and a couple of phases later Sam Norton-Knight was floating a pass out to Horne, who cruised over.
That double strike rattled the cage. Beale’s try just after the break shattered all resistance, and Luke Burgess’ intercept shortly thereafter was the blow that ensured that for the remaining 36 minutes, the Sharks were nothing more than a rotting carcass.
Ryan Kankowski threw the pass that Burgess gratefully poached. It topped a forgettable night for the No 8, who has been sensational this season. But Kankowski certainly wasn’t the only big name player who was anonymous when they most needed to front.
Frans Steyn’s supposed game breaking ability won him a place ahead of the dependable Brad Barritt. Retrospect will show coach Dick Muir that was a mistake. Ruan Pienaar. Who? Adi Jacobs. Non-factor. JP Pietersen. His descent from 12-try champ to tryless chump was made complete tonight. No need to revisited Bismarck du Plessis’ lineout woes.
They stood up well at scrum time, but that is hardly a consolation.
Flops, however, will seldom come more spectacular than Epi Taione. The Tongan wrecking ball was sent into the cauldron as a replacement for AJ Venter, who injured his thumb an hour before kick-off.
Taione, of course, would have been acutely aware of his huge debt to Muir for bringing him back into the side after he was suspended and subsequently released by the Sharks. Five handling errors later, Muir would have been lamenting an ill-conceived plan. Paddy Power. Powder puff.
Outside of the two botched lineouts in the red zone and their late consolation score, not once did the Sharks seriously threaten the tryline.
They fell off straight up hits with alarming regularity, particularly in the 10-12 channel. When they did manage to hold on to a ball carrier they inevitably were taken on a tour of the ground on the back of that player.
Where was the clinical unit who scored 12 tries in the last fortnight? How did they regress from their best performance of the campaign against the Chiefs, to their worst in the space of a week? Muir and Sharks’ supporters will want definitive answers.
Questions will be asked of Muir’s penchant for rotation but that won’t fully explain the disaster that unfolded in Sydney.
Muir departs for the Springboks on the worst note possible. This performance hardly represents the quality of the side he has built. Sadly, he’ll be remembered as the coach who twice took the team close, only to see them falter when they most needed to stand up.
Waratahs - Tries: Lote Tuqiri, Rob Horne, Kurtley Beale, Luke Burgess. Conversion: Beale. Penalty: Beale. Drop goal: Beale.
Sharks - Try: Craig Burden. Conversion: Rory Kockott. Penalty: Frans Steyn. Drop goal: Ruan Pienaar
By Ryan Vrede