The Sharks were very impressive in their 35-31 bonus point victory over the Blues in Auckland.
The scoreline suggests this one was close, but the Sharks had already secured victory well before Joe Rokocoko’s consolation score late in the match.
The Sharks struck at all the decisive periods of the match – first through JP Pietersen (his third try in his last two outings), then either side of half-time through Jacques Botes and Steven Sykes respectively and against the run of play late in the second half.
They had to be absolutely diabolical to squander the 30-16 lead they held 10 minutes into the second half, but you always sensed they were in control against a Blues side who became progressively desperate and lateral in their attacks as the match wore on.
The hosts, despite being ravaged by injuries, remain a very good side and the significance of the victory should not be underestimated. They were made to look as rudderless and impotent as they had made the Stormers look a week ago. For the Sharks it’s two from two on tour, and with the rubble Reds and Force to come, they must be confident that they can return to the Republic with a very good points haul. A clean sweep? It’s not an impossibility.
The contest resembled a Test in many ways early on. Both sides sought field possession through the boots of their primary kickers, the tackle fight and breakdown contest was fierce and the set phases took on added significance given the relative conservatism in general play.
The Sharks were particularly watchful, preferring to launch up-and-unders and back their defensive line to pressure the receiver into errors. They did, however, show glimpses of what they were capable of from broken field, with their numerous gamebreakers gaining good yardage with ball in hand.
That they were able to suppress their natural inclination for attack in favour of a more measured approach is testament to their growth over the last two seasons. Champion sides have a number of weapons in their armoury and the Sharks have certainly developed into serious contenders for the title.
The performance of flyhalf Ruan Pienaar was at the heart of their success. The manner in which he controlled the match was impressive when you consider that he is in the infancy of his career at pivot. His decision making was sharp and execution slick. The foundation he was given by an ever-improving pack has to be noted though.
Mention must also be made of Rory Kockott who backed up a good kicking display with an outstanding performance in general play. However, it seems unfair to single out individuals when the collective was so impressive.
Jimmy Gopperth opened the scoring with a penalty, but it was Pietersen who broke open the contest. Odwa Ndungane picked up a ball that spat loose from a ruck and found Adi Jacobs who surged forward before finding Pietersen on an inside switch which wrong-footed the cover defence. Kockott converted but the Blues hit back, first through Gopperth’s boot, then added a converted try thanks to Isaia Toeava.
Kockott dropped back into the pocket to level the score with a drop goal, and it was all Sharks for the period that followed. Stefan Terblanche launched an up-and-under which the Blues allowed to bounce. The ball sprung favourably for Botes who was left with a clear run in. Kockott added the extras and Gopperth replied with his third penalty to draw his side to within four (20-16) at the break.
Kockott kept the scoreboard ticking over, his penalty preceding Sykes’s crucial try. The Blues rallied well, scoring through Gopperth in one of the few times they were allowed to build through a significant number of phases.
The momentum had swung in their favour and only desperate defence denied Rokocoko a try. The ball was dislodged as the winger attempted to score and Keegan Daniel cleared the ball 80m down field. In the passage of play that followed the Sharks turned over possession and Springbok skipper John Smit powered over from close range for the bonus-point try.
The Sharks have built a reputation for being near impossible to beat at King’s Park but importantly they’ve also developed into a side who travel very well. Away wins are essential if you hope to secure a home semi-final and with their second successive win on the road (against their most difficult opponents on tour) they look well placed to be in the mix for the premier spot at the business end of the tournament.
By Ryan Vrede